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The Disputation between Rabbi Nachmanides and Jewish Christian Pablo Christiani

February 12, 2014

Pablo ChristianiOver 750 years ago, a Jewish convert to Christianity Pablo Christiani (this is his adopted Christian name), wanted his fellow Jews to see the same “light” that he once did. Prior to his conversion, Pablo has studied under Rabbi Eliezer of Tarascon and was well versed in Talmud and rabbinic literature. Once he became a believer in Jesus, joining the Dominican friars, Christiani followed the lead of another Jewish convert, Nicholas Donin, in trying to evangelize the Jews by all methods and knowledge at his disposal. As a Christian, he began to see the Talmud as the chief reason behind Jewish obstinacy and rejection of Jesus as their divine messiah and savior. Although a former student of Talmud, like Donin before him, he now wanted to do away with it and destroy it. However, Christiani also saw Talmud’s value as an evangelistic tool among Jews.

With this goal in mind, just as some modern Christians (either Gentile or, like Pablo, Jewish by birth) still do today, Pablo set out to gather various Talmudic and midrashic quotes from various rabbis in a concerted effort to “prove” that even the rabbis themselves believed that the Messiah already came, that the Jewish Messiah was indeed to be both human and G-d, and that Christianity was the true faith. Armed with his new “Jewish proofs”, Pablo persuaded the Spanish King James I of Aragon to allow him to publicly debate Rabbi Nachmanides (the famous Ramban, a leading medieval Jewish scholar, philosopher, physician, kabbalist, and biblical commentator.) Although Pablo expected, as in previous forced debates, that Nachmanides would be required to moderate his words so as not to “blaspheme Jesus or his blessed mother”, unexpectedly for all King James granted Ramban full freedom of speech, assuring him of no repercussions for either him or the Jewish community. The debate took place July 20–24, 1263. By all accounts, Rabbi Nachmanides soundly won the debate. So impressed was King James, that he awarded Nachmanides a prize of 300 gold coins. The king famously said that never before had he heard “an unjust cause so nobly defended”. James also did what no other king of the Middle Ages has done before – he proceeded to attend Ramban’s synagogue next Shabbat, where he addressed the congregation.

Nevertheless, Ramban’s debate opponents circulated the reports claiming that they won. The rabbi was then forced to publish his side of the event. The Jewish convert and Rabman’s interlocutor Pablo Christiani then culled from Ramban’s report whatever he viewed as “blasphemies” against the Christian faith and asked authorities to prosecute the rabbi. In the end, Rabbi Nachmanides was sentenced to years of exile and his debate report was to be burned. After a few years of wondering around Europe, he thought it prudent to leave it for good. He proceeded to settle in the Land of Israel, where he died, but not before founding the famous Ramban Synagogue in Jerusalem, the oldest synagogue in that city. Christiani, according to the Jewish Encyclopedia, “interceded with King Louis IX. of France and obtained from him the enforcement of the canonical edict requiring Jews to wear badges.” Two hundred years after Ramban’s debate with Pablo Christiani, Spain would expel all of its 200,000 Jews, with tens of thousands of the refugees dying from starvation, exposure, disease and murder.

Video: The Disputation

What follows are four 15-minute segments (and 5th shorter ending) of a dramatized movie/play called The Disputation based on the proceedings of the Disputation. While some creative license was undoubtedly taken, it nonetheless tries to capture both the essential arguments and the mood surrounding this event.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

Part 5:

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