From ancient times until today, Jews and Christians have lived in constant contact with each other. In a previous post, I wrote about some of their intellectual collaboration during the Middle Ages (“Did Jews, Christians, and Muslims Ever Think Together?”). But what about the conflict between Judaism and Christianity? After all, these religions presented competing versions of “the Truth”!
One manifestation of the conflict between Judaism and Christianity was a series of “disputations” or public debates in various European cities. Two of the most famous such disputations took place in Paris in 1240 and in Barcelona in 1263. In Barcelona the famous mystical scholar-rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (Nachmanides) represented the Jewish side. He was opposed by Pablo Christiani (“Paul the Christian”), a convert from Judaism to Christianity whose previous name as a Jew had been Shaul (“Saul”).
The debate could not be an open and equal consideration of ideas, because it took place in an environment of Christian political domination. The Dominican friars who organized the disputation wrote that the event did not allow any questioning of the truth of Christianity – for that, they said, was already certain. Rather, the debate took place specifically for the purpose of showing the Jews the errors of their ways. For his part, Nachmanides, having been summoned by King James I of Aragon, had no choice but to participate and defend his understanding of Judaism as best he could in this rigged situation. He was in fact much more fortunate than some others who found themselves in similar positions, for he managed to secure the right to speak his mind freely (instead of facing harsh punishment should he be regarded as “blaspheming” Christianity during the debate).
Partly as a result, the disputation covered essential differences between medieval Judaism and Christianity in some detail. Moshe and Pablo argued over whether the Messiah/Christ had already come; whether he was divine; why, if he had come, he had not brought peace to the earth; whether the Torah (Instruction/Law) given by Moses remained valid. It is difficult to say who “won” the debate, since the Latin (Christian) and Hebrew (Jewish) accounts give very different impressions on this score!
The conflict between competing “truths” also led to much darker realities in European history, including extreme hostility and violent anti-Jewish persecutions. An already huge body of literature called adversus Iudaeos (“Against the Jews”) continued to grow. It was only in 1965 with the Nostra aetate declaration that the Catholic church clearly departed from such an antagonistic stance. Nowadays much Jewish-Christian dialogue – or even continued debate about the very same questions! – thankfully takes place in a much friendlier environment. This would probably please Gilbert Crispin, the abbot of Westminster in the late 11th century, who wrote about a Jewish acquaintance, “Each time that we would meet, immediately we would have a talk in a friendly spirit about the Holy Scriptures and our faith.”