This Day in Jewish History |

1414: The Disputation of Tortosa Comes to an End

David Green
David B. Green
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Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.Credit: AP
David Green
David B. Green

On this day in 1414, the Disputation of Tortosa, a 19-month debate on the respective truth of Judaism and Christianity, came to an end in Tortosa, Catalonia. The disputation, the longest of several public, Church-mandated discussions held during the Middle Ages, was not an open inquiry into the beliefs of the two faiths, but rather, as defined by the Antipope Benedict XIII, intended to use Jewish sources to prove that Jesus was the Messiah and that Christianity had superseded its mother religion.

The Christian side of the disputation was led by Geronimo de Santa Fe, formerly known as Joshua Lorqui, a Jewish convert and physician to Benedict,  whose claims that Jewish texts pointed to the coming of Jesus as redeemer prompted the antipope to order the contest.

(Benedict reigned from 1394 to 1423, but most of that time was not recognized by the Rome-based Church as the legitimate pope – hence the title of antipope. His decision to host a disputation was probably intended to attract support to his claim to the papacy.)

The disputation took place over three stages. Geronimo led the presentation of the case for Christianity, while on the Jewish side, subpoenas went out to communities throughout Catalonia and Aragon for scholars to defend the religion. Among them were Joseph Albo and Zerahia Halevi Ferrer. These defenders were at a considerable disadvantage because, while their official mission was to prove the truth of the Jewish faith, they were at risk of being charged with heresy if they made the case too energetically.   

There are both Jewish and Christian transcriptions of the debates, in Hebrew and Latin, respectively. According to the records, the discussions addressed the meaning of the Messianic age and the question of whether it had come yet or not; whether the Messiah was intended for the Jews alone or all humanity; which Hebrew sources – the midrashic texts versus the Talmud, for example -- are to be relied upon for understanding Judaism; and even whether such sources are to be understood for their literal meaning or only allegorically.

By January 1414, when the third stage of the disputation began, most of the Jewish scholars had withdrawn from the discussion, having been away from their homes for so long. Among those who remained, most refused at a certain point to continue responding to the arguments made by Geronimo. Many others, however, had converted to Christianity during the course of the disputation, along with many hundreds of other Iberian Jews.  

Benedict ultimately declared the Church the winner of the disputation. Geronimo demanded the burning of the Talmud as the consequence of a Jewish defeat, but the pope sufficed with an order that copies of the Talmud be collected so that passages considered insulting to Christianity could be subjected to censorship. The disappointing showing by the Jews inspired a number of texts in subsequent years -- including one by Joseph Albo, who wrote a book of Jewish basics called The Book of Principles - that responded to some of the troubling questions raised during the disputation.

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