Not Everyone Loves Raymond

Christians, Jews, and the 750th Anniversary of the Barcelona Disputation

Left: St. Raymond of Peñafort, O.P. Right: Woodcut by Johann von Armssheim, (1483) of disputation between Jewish and Christian scholars.

That notorious Jew-hater Ramón Peñafort, the DOMINICAN friar then a canon lawyer in Rome and ultimately the author both of the Decretals for Pope Gregory IX and the Siete Partidas for Alfonso X,”1 “[h]e went from Castile to his native Catalonia stirring up hatred against Jews … This Jew-hater was later made a saint.2

— Norman Roth, Medieval Jewish Civilization, an encyclopedia 

First of all, it is necessary to realize that Jews lived in medieval Spain longer than they had in any other country in the world, including Israel … approximately twelve centuries of continuous Jewish presence … Second, more Jews lived in medieval Spain than in all the other countries of Europe combined … Most indeed, were rural rather than urban dwellers. This could be possible only in a situation where Christians generally were not only tolerant but friendly towards Jews, and where Jews felt entirely safe in living, sometimes only two or three families, in a remote Christian village. 3

— Norman Roth, Conversos, Inquisition, and the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain 

The above description ought to give any historian worth his salt, a pause bordering on awe. This is all the more so for anyone aspiring to articulate a better understanding of Christian-Jewish relations. Soon after the arrival of the Black Death in 1349, however, the idyllic picture painted above was shattered. Jewish communities found themselves scapegoats for the plague which killed as much as a third of the population in some cities. In the decades that followed, tens of thousands of Jews were victimized by civil war and religious bigotry, including the unprecedented pogroms of the summer of 1391. This was followed in its wake by intense Dominican preaching, forced attendance at sermons, and compulsory presence at “debates” that lasted for months. By the 1430s, perhaps one half of the Jewish population had reluctantly “converted” to Catholicism.4 By 1492, those who still refused were expelled. Such were surely examples of that use of coercion, albeit in the service of truth, repeatedly condemned by Blessed Pope John Paul II in the great lead-up to the dawn of the Third Millennium.5

It is no wonder then that St. Raymond of Peñafort, the Dominican friar who first inaugurated the mission to Jews should be so vilified in the quotation above, especially by a leading Jewish scholar. But it is just that, a vilification, a “black legend,” one that serves no constructive purpose in the pursuit of historical truth. Typical of this kind of work is the scholarship of Jeremy Cohen, who poses a malignant mendicant theology-against-the-Jews: “the Dominicans and Franciscans developed, refined, and sought to implement a new Christian ideology with regard to the Jews, one that allotted the Jews no legitimate right to exist in European society.”6 The main force of Cohen’s case lies in his analysis of the famous Barcelona Disputation, a great public debate between a Dominican, Friar Paul, and the most eminent rabbi of his age, Moses Nachmanides, exactly 750 years ago this summer. Based on his analyses, Cohen comes to the conclusion that the Dominicans believed that thirteenth-century Jews following the rabbinic tradition contained in the Talmud had broken from the Judaism of the Old Testament, thereby making themselves “heretics” and losing their right to be tolerated in contemporary medieval society.7

For many, the celebrated Barcelona Disputation is seen as the symbolic “beginning of the end” of Jewish prosperity in Spain, or even Europe taken as a whole. Yet, there is little about the event itself, or St. Raymond’s alleged “orchestration” of it, which portended inevitable doom. Indeed, one might just as well find within it the medieval seeds of our modern sense of rational discourse and tolerance. As the late Hyam Maccoby detailed in his description of the debate:

There are no threats of confiscation or burning of the Talmud depending on the result. The object is not to convict, but to win over. There are many reasons for this, from the religio-political situation in Spain to the character of Dominican missionary activity in the school of Raymund de Peñaforte, the aged scholar and missionary (later canonized) who set the tone of the debate though he did not himself participate in it as a disputant, preferring to give this role to the convert from Judaism, Pablo Christiani.8

Twenty years earlier, after stepping down as master-general of the Order, St. Raymond began establishing schools for Dominicans to learn Hebrew (and Arabic) in order to persuade Jews (and Muslims) to become Christians through rational and scriptural arguments. Friar Paul, formerly Saul, was one such convert. He and Rabbi Moses debated an intriguing proposition: that the Jewish Scriptures and Talmud themselves corroborated the coming of Jesus as Messiah. The debate sessions occurred between Friday July 20, and Friday July 27, 1263, in front of the great King James I of Aragon, his court and a crowd of Christian, as well as Jewish, subjects. It should be noted that to suggest the two disputants met on a level playing field is, of course, historically inaccurate. In the first place, the Ramban9 and his Jewish audience had clearly been coerced into participating in the forum by the king at Dominican prompting.10 Secondly, we ought to observe that Nachmanides’ role was cast in a decidedly defensive posture.11 Fear of potential blasphemy was paramount in this Christian precaution. And there was a real danger, as the rabbi’s own words demonstrate:

But the doctrine in which you believe, and which is the foundation of your faith, cannot be accepted by the reason, and nature affords no ground for it, nor have the prophets ever expressed it. Nor can even the miraculous stretch as far as this as I shall explain with full proofs in the right time and place, that the Creator of Heaven and earth resorted to the womb of a certain Jewess and grew there for nine months and was born as an infant, and afterwards grew up and was betrayed into the hands of his enemies who sentenced him to death and executed him, and that afterwards, as you say, he came to life and returned to his original place. The mind of a Jew, or any other person, cannot tolerate this; and you speak your words entirely in vain, for this is the root of our controversy.12

Not one, but many of the statements cited above could have easily been viewed as blasphemous by the Christian side. If Nachmanides actually said them (as he records in his account, the Vikuach) without receiving any censure, it attests to a formidable forbearance and allowance of freedom of speech on the part of his medieval Christian contemporaries, something no modern Dominican detractor has yet acknowledged.13 Despite the need to tread carefully, Moses sought a more active role:

I was seeking thereby the permission of the King and of Fray Raymon of Pennaforte and his associates who were there. Fray Raymon of Pennaforte replied: “Provided only that you do not speak disrespectfully.” I said to them, “I do not wish to have to submit to your judgment on that, but to speak as I wish on the matter of disputation, just as you say all that you wish; and I have enough understanding to speak with moderation on the matters of dispute just as you do, but let it be according to my own discretion.” So they all gave me permission to speak freely.14

The fact that Nachmanides asked permission of Peñafort may mean that Friar Raymond was the only Dominican for whom the rabbi had even a modicum of respect, that the nonagenarian saint was more amiable and agreeable than the young upstart Paul Christian. The former Dominican master-general granted Moses this permission as long as he did not blaspheme Christ or his Church. This incident is significant for at least two reasons. On the second day of the debate, Nachmanides again attempted to address James I and this time was cut off by the monarch himself: “I said to our lord the king `My lord, hear me.’ But the King said to me: ‘Let him [Paul] speak first, for he is the challenger.”15 Finally, on the last day of the debate, Nachmanides, weary of repeated interrogation, once more sought a more even-handed format from the king: “it is fair that for one day I should be the questioner and Fray Paul the answerer since so far, he has questioned me and I have answered him for three days running.” The king replied: “Nevertheless, you answer him.”16 Besides showing the contrived nature of the theological contest, these exchanges show that King James was repeatedly unwilling to grant the Ramban any leeway. Raymond, on the other hand, by Nachmanides’ account, was willing to let the rabbi have some liberty in his own defense. This may suggest a more accommodating attitude on the part of Peñafort than the king. Later that week after Raymond delivered a synagogue sermon on the Trinity and the rabbi gave a rebuttal, we see again see a certain graciousness on the part of Raymond toward his opponent:

Then Fray Paul stood up and said that he believed in a perfect Unity, and together with it there is a Trinity, and that this is a matter so deep that even the angels and princes on high do not understand it.

I stood up and said, “It is obvious that a person cannot believe what he does not know; Which means that the angels cannot believe in the Trinity.” And Fray Paul’s companions made him keep silent.17 (Emphasis mine)

As Maccoby suggests, it appears it was Peñafort who made Paul pipe-down. Thus he does not view him in the same derisive fashion as Roth and Cohen:

Raymund de Peñaforte, however, had a much more civilized approach, towards both Jews and Muslims. He understood that in order to produce genuine conversions, he must enter into the culture and minds of his prospective converts. Accordingly, he set up academies where Dominican monks were set to work to study the Jewish and Muslim classics. This provided the first impulse for the study of Hebrew and Arabic at the universities…18

As Peter Marsilio, O.P. a near contemporary describes Raymond: “Inflamed with fires of charity, he inspired a special devotion and reverence for himself among infidels also, to wit, Jews and Saracens [Muslims], who admired the excellence of his honesty and were delighted by his sweet and reasonable speech.”19 “Sweet and reasonable” discourse stemming from a supernatural love, or caritas, for the salvation of souls was certainly the Dominican ideal, as propounded by the life and work of its founder. Love and tolerance are not normally associated with medieval times.20 Yet it was the medieval Church, in its canon law for instance, which established the West’s first working-definition of societal “tolerance”:

Permission [tolerance] is taken in three different ways. First, when something is allowed that is not forbidden by any law…Second, when something is indulged that runs counter to human rules…The third type of permission occurs when lesser evils are permitted so as to prevent greater ones. This is called the permissio comparativa, and it does not excuse from sin. It should, however, be called tolerantia rather than permission.21

These words were penned by none other than St. Raymond of Peñafort. In 1231, Raymond was given the monumental task by Pope Gregory IX of codifying centuries of ecclesiastical decrees into a “uniform” body of canon law; his Decretals, once completed, stood until 1917. Based on this definition of tolerance the Church was able to maintain that she (as established by Jesus Christ) alone possessed the fullness of truth and yet, in the same breath, condemn as sinful the forced conversion or molestation (i.e. greater evils) of Jews and Muslims. This medieval Christian definition of tolerance balanced both the Church’s recognition of absolute truth and the individual’s right not to be coerced in the practice of his or her non-Christian religion.22 It is indeed ironic that Raymond, Roth and Cohen’s evil genius behind mendicant intolerance, is the same chief canonist who laid down the Church’s authoritative definition of tolerance.23

Before Raymond, no churchman since St. Paul had ever launched an evangelical initiative among the Jews, neither had anyone taken the Talmud seriously. But Raymond was convinced that through philosophy and prophecy, Christ could reign in the hearts of his own people. In his apologetic approach, the saint was very much like Pope Emeritus Benedict in his 2006 address at Regensburg: “‘Not to act reasonably (with logos) is contrary to the nature of God’ … It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures.”24 It was in this vein that Raymond pressed his brother Dominican, St. Thomas Aquinas, to compose his celebrated Summa contra gentiles, whose 750th anniversary we also (arguably) commemorate this year. In it, Thomas explained the faith to his fellow friars in terms intended to reach Jews and Muslims, that is, by rational arguments.

St. Raymond was himself the author of a summa, the Summa de casibus, a manual for confessors to use in administering the sacrament of God’s mercy, one of the most popular books of the whole Middle Ages. In it he outlines the Church’s theology of sin and repentance, and although he composed it to assist repentant Christian sinners, significantly, he includes Jews and Muslims in the same category of fallen humanitas in need of pardon and redemption. Because they rejected Christ and His Church Jews were considered objectively guilty of “infidelity,” or “blasphemy,” not “heresy.”25 But far from “see[ing] no place for the Jews in Christendom… [and] trying to extirpate manifestations of contemporary Judaism from Christian Europe,” as Cohen claims, Raymond is quite clear in the same summa as to their continued right to coexist:

Jews as well as Saracens ought to be moved more strongly to receive the Christian faith as their new religion by citations of authority, by reasoning, and by pleasant incentives, rather than by harshness. Furthermore, they are not to be compelled, for compelled acts of service do not please God, Who wants sincere ones. The Council of Toledo says the same, as it distinguishes in the same way concerning the Jews.26

Marking the 750th anniversary of the Barcelona Disputation provides occasion for placing “Dominican words and deeds within the horizon of their own traditions…allows us to hear the Dominican voice more fully…contributing to the possibility of a fuller dia-logos.”27 It allows Christians and Jews, borrow the words of scholar Rabbi Jacob Neusner speaking in a similar context: “to meet one another in a forthright exercise of reason and criticism. The challenges of Sinai bring us together for the renewal of a two thousand year-old tradition of religious debate in the service of God’s truth.”28

We may conclude, therefore, that not only academia, but contemporary society has much to gain from a reappraisal of the Christian metaphysics of the Middle Ages and its practical application to modern tolerance and dialogue. As Benedict XVI expressed it at Regensburg: “The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm thereby. The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur—this is the program with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time.”29 Scholar IstvÁn Bejczy puts well the danger inherent in the West’s Enlightenment (i.e. anti-medieval) view of tolerance: “Admitting the relativity of our truths, we should be reluctant to condemn the acts of our fellow human beings that differ from our own—that is the basic idea of our so-called tolerance. An idea that makes us morally defenseless if outright evil shows up.”30 Ironically, by condemning medieval belief in universally recognizable moral truths, today’s intelligentsia could be throwing away the only true remedy to the escalating sectarianism (i.e. sectarian violence) they so fear:

Medieval authors never doubted that they possessed the absolute truth, but they developed the concept of tolerantia as a way of getting along with the untrue. Medieval authors were never morally defenseless against outright evil and condemned it wherever they believed to find it, but still they advocated not to interfere with it if this seemed to be opportune. Obviously we do not have the same enemies as medieval people. Still, with regard to the question of how to handle the enemies we do have without going to the extremes of tyranny and inertia, the medieval doctrine of tolerance contains a lesson for our age as well.31

What a different world it would be, for example, if the U.S. and its allies had adopted a “medieval” stance of tolerance toward Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and if Muslim zealots had long ago adopted the same posture toward the U.S. and Israel?


1 Norman Roth, Medieval Jewish Civilization, an encyclopedia, “Moneylending,” (New York: Routledge, 2003), 455.

2 Ibid., “Canon (Church) Law and Jews,” 131.

3 Roth, Conversos, Inquisition, and the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995), 9.

4 The sincerity of some, if not many of these conversions need to be questioned under such circumstances, despite the involvement of a canonized saint like Vincent Ferrer. The fact that the Spanish Inquisition was ultimately created to deal with insincere converts further supports this point.

5 Cf. Tertio Millennio Adveniente, 35, November 10, 1994; Homily and Prayers of the Faithful during the Day of Pardon Mass, March 12, 2000, and March 26, 2000, Blessed Pope John Paul II inserted the following prayer into the “Wailing Wall” of Jerusalem during his state visit to Israel: “God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your Name to the Nations; we are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant.” 

6 Jeremy Cohen, The Friars and the Jews, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), 14. For readers not familiar with the Talmud, it is thousands of pages long and contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis. After the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, Jewish oral tradition was written down ultimately comprising the Talmud, which then became central to Judaism. It contains biblical, legal and literary elements.

7 Cohen, 168-69.

8 Hyam Maccoby, Judaism on Trial: Jewish Christian Disputations in the Middle Ages, (Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickisnon University Press, 1982), 39.

9 R abbi M oses b en N achman; a common abbreviation.

10 Robert Chazan, Daggers of Faith, Thirteenth-century Christian Missionizing and Jewish response, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 73.

11 Chazan, 74.

12 Vikuach, Maccoby trans., 119-120; based on the Vikuach of Nachmanides edited by Steinschneider.

13 It should be noted that although the rabbi was not punished for what he said, he was later punished for writing down what he said and for disseminating this account. Ultimately, at the urging of the Pope and the Dominicans, King James exiled him. Chazan thinks it is highly dubious that Nachmanides would have actually said these remarks in debate. Chazan, Barcelona and Beyond, the Disputation of 1263 and its Aftermath, (Berkeley: University of California Press,1992), 48-49.

14 Maccoby, 102.

15 Ibid., 114.

16 Ibid., 134.

17 Ibid., 146.

18 Ibid., 41.

19 Raymundiana I ; seu : Documenta quae pertinent ad S. Raymundi de Pennaforti vitam et scripta,

Eds. François Balme; Ceslaus Paban; Joachim Collomb (Rome; Stuttgart : Jos. Roth, 1898-1901,) 12.

20 IstvÁn Bejczy, “Tolerantia: A Medieval Concept,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 1997, 365.

21Ibid., 369-370; St. Raymond of , Peñafort Summa de iure canonico, ed. Xaverius Ochoa, and Aloisius Diez, Universa bibliotheca iuris I A (Rome, 1975), I. 5. 4, 8-9.

22 The Medieval Church’s approach to Christian heretics is, of course, another matter.

23 Bejczy, 373.

24 His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, “Address to the University of Regensburg,” September 12, 2006.

25 “Objectively” in error, as opposed to “subjectively,” since no one knows the inmost thoughts of his non-Christian neighbor. Even Vatican II upheld this medieval approach to non-Christians when it taught: “Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved,” Lumen Gentium, 14. On the other hand, the fault of many medieval Churchmen was to assume that the truthfulness of the Church’s claims was practically self-evident, making non-Christian protestations of agnosticism seem shallow and “perfidious.”

Raymond is quite explicit in his Summa confessorum—in his own hand, that Jews are not heretics: “Dictum est supra de Iudaeis, & pagani, qui per infidelitatem Deum inhonorant: nunc agendum de Haereticis, qui a fide deviantes in Deum multipliciter peccant.” Summa de poenitentiae, I, 5, 1.

26 Ibid., 1, 4, 1.

27 Anonymous reviewer of my forthcoming book on the subject.

28 Jacob Neusner, Judaism and Christianity, New Directions for Dialogue and Understanding, eds. Jacob Neusner, Alan J. Aver-Peck, (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 8.

29 His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, “Address to the University of Regensburg,” September 12, 2006.

30 Bejczy, 384.

31 Ibid.

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About Dr. Edmund J. Mazza 6 Articles
Dr. Edmund J. Mazza is host of the “Discover Christ Channel” on YouTube. His podcasts can also be heard on “The Bar of History,” at