In modern terms, a Dominican monk named Paul Christiani sued for the right to preach in Jewish synagogues. This lead to a public trial, with Paul as the plaintiff, Nachmanides, a respected local rabbi as defendant, and King James I as judge. But part of the legal argument was this: Jews already accepted Jesus a Christ, synagogues were crypto-Jewish churches, and this could be proven using only Jewish religious texts! This con-texts used are fascinating, as not only excludes New Testament letters to the Jews (such as Matthew and Hebrews) and pre-Hebraic sources (Stories from Ancient Canaan, Assembly of the Gods) were excluded, the trial intentionally added texts not typically part of Christian hermeneutics — the Babylonian Talmud.
And thus, the first wrinkle: for Paul Christiani was an adult Jewish convert to Catholocism. He had a literate, adult understanding of Judaism as it was actually practiced and believed, not simply an academics understanding of the Hebrew parts of the bible. The Jewish tradition Peter and Paul learned including not only the Hebrew Bible (which makes up the bulk of the Catholic Old Testament), but also the Talmud, including oral laws not written down in the written Torah, explanations and rulings on those laws, as analysis and commentaries.
In these impressions I will describe the most fascinating part for me, wonder about the Friar’s and the Rabbi’s actual views of the Talmud, and note some arguments that I had expected to read from both Paul and Nahmanides, but which were not included in the disputation.
Possible the most fascinating paragraph is one in Nahmanides’ account, describing Paul’s use of the Talmud during the disputation. Paul seeks Talmudic support for the notion that the Messiah was born in the first century:
Friar Paul then claimed that in the Talmud it is said that the messiah has already come.
He adduced the story in Midrash Lamentations concerning a man who was plowing and whose ox lowed. An Arab passed and said to him:
“Jew, Jew, unhitch your ox, unhitch your ploughshare, unhitch your plough for the Temple has been destroyed.”
He unhitched his ox, unhitched his ploughshare, and unhitched his plough. The ox lowed a second time. The Arab said to him:
“Hitch up your ox, hitch up your ploughshare, hitch up your plough, for your messiah has been born.”
I responded: “I do not believe in this story at all, but it is a proof for my view.”
He then cried out: “Behold he denies their books.”
I learned a lot from this simple exchange. First, that the end of the Second Temple period was not only traumatic for Judaism, but also (for at least some Jews) led to a sustained belief that the Messiah was born… and that belief was in someone other than Jesus. I had never heard this, and it emphasizes the point that Judaism is not “just” the Judaism of Jesus’s day — it was not static.
I wonder what was Frair Paul’s view of the Talmud. Was he using it simply as a rhetorical device? Or as a Jewish convert to Christianity, did he believe that it was an authentic if culturally distinct part of the Christian religion — analogous to the view of some Christians toward Messianic Judaism. Likewise, from what I can read online, Nachmanides is famous not just for his role in the disputation, but also for his in-depth criticism of the famed Jewish scholar Maimonides, as well as his work on the Kabbalah. He also seems to have had a complicated relationship with the Talmud — one I barely am aware of. I am reminded of my experience reading The Syrio-Aramaic Reading of the Interpretation of the Koran, which page after page reminded me of the the deep linguistic/historical/cultural/religious foundations I do not have.
Both Friar Paul and Rabbi Nachmanides fail to make claims that I to me seem obvious for their positions. For example, take the part of the disputation where Friar Paul is arguing for Talmudic support to the idea that the LORD would be incarnate among men:
Again he returned [to his previous line of argument] and brought evidence from the Midrash where they said: “It is written, ‘And I will walk among you (Leviticus 26:12). They likened this [example] to one it resembles, [about] a king who went out for a walk with his laborer in his orchard, but the laborer hid himself. The king asked, ‘Why do you hide, for behold, I am like you.’ In the same manner, in the future, the Holy One, blessed is He, will walk in the Garden of Eden among the righteous, who will be afraid of Him, in the future to come. The Holy One, blessed is He, will say: ‘Why do you tremble before me? I am like you. I will be your God, and you shall be My people (Leviticus 26:12).’ Since God said, ‘I am like you,’ it shows he turned into a man, like them.”
An omission made by Friar Paul is puzzling to me. It seems significant, but neither the Latin nor Hebrew accounts of the disputation include any reference to the “Angel of the LORD,” which would appear to be an obvious place to make such a claim in the Hebrew Bible. The “Angel of the LORD” appears both anthropomorphic but also speaks as if it was the LORD Himself. But neither party makes an appeal to these references, such as
Then the Angel of the Lord came up from Gilgal to Bochim, and said: “I led you up from Egypt and brought you to the land of which I swore to your fathers; and I said, ‘I will never break My covenant with you. And you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall tear down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed My voice. Why have you done this?
And thus it would seem neither of them found these passages meaningful to this question.
Likewise, I was surprised that Nachmanides never used what is now a common argument within evangelical circles to buttress his case: that the Hebrew Bible intentionally makes it impossible to identify the Christian Messiah — in the contemporary words of the Catholic Church, that “God, the inspirer and author of both Testaments, wisely arranged that the New Testament be hidden in the Old ” (Dei Verbum). The best elucidation of this argument is from Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm, where he argues the secrecy was to prevent those who would harm the Messiah from knowing his identifying too soon. By this logic the Transfiguration (when Moses and Elijah joined a council of Peter, James, and John) around the Messiah was a climactic revelation that could not have been predicted from Hebrew texts alone.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.
The obvious implication of the New Testament being “hidden” and the identity of the Messiah being kept secret is that these cannot be proven from the old revelation alone.
Nevertheless, Friar Paul never takes what seems like an obvious swing in his direction, Rabbi Nachmanides does not take the same swing the other way.
Debating Truth is written an four sections: a comic book style close paraphrase of the disputation, a number of legal documents (including chronologies of the disputation from both sides), a historical section providing context for the disputation, and finally a historiographic analysis of how reliable the different texts actually are. This organization is brilliant. It is easy and fun to read the comic-book close translation of the debate. The original documents provide a post-modern breakdown of the event as seen from Friar Paul, Rabbi Nachmanides, King James, and the Pope, the “context” provides some background primarily on Catalonia and the Jewish community, and histiography raises serious questions about what we actually know about the original documents.
I come to this book having recently read biographies of two famous friars, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis, as well as a Madigan’s history of medieval Christianity. Both focus on the role of the friars in turning to the personal and intellectual experiences, as opposed to the sacraments-alone (at best) or simply corrupt corrupt (at worst) nature of many parishes and monasteries. I would have liked the connection between the revolt of the friars and the disputation to be more clear. Likewise, much more biographical information on Nachmanides and King James is provided than for Friar Paul, and to me this makes for an unbalanced presentation.
Yet the book was striking, incredibly informative, rich in detail and background, and opened my eyes to much I did not know before. What else could I ask! I’m so glad I read this in the paperback edition.
I also recommend this terrific interview with an author.