The Roman Catholic Church—Policies—Missionizing


Simulation of the Barcelona Disputation

Simulation of the Barcelona Disputation. By ביקורת – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Church policy of protection and limitation was complicated by yet one more element, and that involved the commitment to preaching Christian truth to the Jews. During the early part of our period, the eleventh and early twelfth centuries, the commitment to proselytizing was limited, and Christian anti-Jewish argumentation was intended largely to bolster internal Christian convictions.

By the middle of the twelfth century, as western Christendom became increasingly strong and aggressive, genuine missionizing ardor developed. During the middle decades of the thirteenth century, the new commitment eventuated in a concerted and well-orchestrated campaign. The objective was no longer to reassure Christians; it was to win over Jews.

In this more aggressive setting, the key issues for the Church involved finding appropriate venues for delivering the Christian message.

Jewish circumstances in medieval western Christendom set the stage for effective delivery of Christian claims to Jewish audiences. Because of Jewish dependency upon the lay authorities of western Christendom, the political establishment could force Jews to present themselves to hear Christian claims. What was required was simply the willingness of the political leadership to enact such decrees, and many were quite willing to do so. Jews protested strenuously, arguing that forced exposure to Christian preaching and teaching contravened the basic right of Jews to live as Jews in Christian society. To this Jewish claim, Church and lay leadership responded that the only force exerted involved confrontation of Jews with Christian arguments. Such forced confrontation in no way diminished Jewish freedom of choice. Jews were free to hear Christian claims and reject them.

The most common format for forced confrontation with Christian claims was the compulsory sermon. Jews were ordered by the lay authorities to hear the sermons of preachers, often of the Dominican Order, which had been organized to combat heresy through rigorous argumentation and—subsequently—to utilize knowledge of religious truth and mechanisms of intellectual combat to preach the faith to non-Christians as well. To the extent that Jews could influence the venue of these forced sermons, they much preferred to have them take place in synagogues, where at least the Jewish audience felt a measure of familiarity and comfort. In the wake of such forced sermons, rabbis often gave counter-addresses, intended to rebut the Christian claims and to reinforce the audience’s sense of Jewish truth. The so-called forced disputations were an offshoot of the forced sermon.

The one liability, from the Christian perspective, of the forced sermon was the lack of overt Jewish response. Christian preachers had no way of assessing audience reaction—were their Jewish listeners reacting positively, negatively, or with total indifference? The forced disputation was intended to bring Christian preachers into contact with Jewish leaders, to engage the Jewish leaders with Christian arguments, and to force these Jewish leaders to respond publicly. These public disputations have often been misunderstood by moderns as open-ended discussions of religious truth, which they certainly were not. Again, under no circumstances were Jews to be allowed to criticize the ruling faith. These public disputations were carefully orchestrated engagements, in which the Christian side was empowered to advance its claims and the Jewish side was limited to parrying these claims. In some instances, such as the famed Barcelona disputation of 1263, there is no evidence of Christian success; in other cases, such as the equally well-known Tortosa disputation of 1412-1415, the protracted public disputation resulted in considerable Jewish conversion.

Secondary Literature

  1. S. Simonsohn, The Apostolic See and the Jews- History, 228-286.
  2. R. Chazan, Daggers of Faith (Berkeley- University of California Press, 1989), 38-85.
  3. E. R. Daniel, “Abbot Joachim of Fiore and the Conversion of the Jews,” Friars and Jews in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, ed. Steven J. McMichael and Susan E. Myers (Leiden- Brill, 2004), 1-21.
  4. Y. Baer, A History of the Jews in Christian Spain, trans. Louis Schoffman et al. (2 vols.; Philadelphia- Jewish Publication Society), 2-170-243.
  5. F. Talmage, “Trauma at Tortosa- The Testimony of Abraham Rimoch,” Mediaeval Studies 47 (1985)-379-415.


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