History isn’t always written by the victors. Losers sometimes do as well, and when they do they often inaccurately portray themselves as winners. We see today, even in a hyper-connected world, that smooth media operatives can spin almost anything into a victory. When looking at history, we can ask whether the recorded accounts are true or tales artfully spun to reflect an agenda. But is such a question appropriate of a revered religious figure?
Prof. Robert Chazan, in a 1995 book Barcelona and Beyond: The Disputation of 1263 and Its Aftermath, carefully studied multiple accounts of the famous Barcelona disputation between Ramban and Friar Paul Christian. Notable differences between the Christian and Jewish accounts, and issues of plausibility, led Chazan to question the veracity of the Ramban’s report. Is it really possible that Ramban would publicly raise “the irrationality of the incarnation, the militarism of the Spanish Christian state, the Messiah’s future destruction of Rome, or the curses to befall Christians”? And is it likely that the Christians would have allowed Ramban to stray so far from their topic of Talmudic proofs for Christianity? Additionally, we see in the later Tortosa disputation that Jews were prevented from raising other issues. Why would the Barcelona disputation be any different? Rather, Ramban must have embellished and exaggerated his account.
I would have responded that this accusation is patently offensive. While I lack the historical tools to adequately answer the points raised, I know Ramban from his extensive writings as a pious man, one of the ba’alei ha-mesorah, bearers of our tradition. It is inappropriate to impugn his honesty based on speculation centuries later. Good questions do not give us the right to draw bad conclusions.
In a 1995 review essay, reprinted in his recent Persecution, Polemic and Dialogue: Essays in Jewish-Christian Relations, Dr. David Berger (from whose account I based the above summary and all quotes in this post) responds to Prof. Chazan’s questions from a historian’s perspective. The king, he points out, ran this debate and not the clerics. While the king was on the Christian side, he may have enjoyed a free debate in which Jewish counter-arguments were allowed. He favored the Christians and occasionally squashed the Ramban’s line of argumentation but this does not mean that he was unfailingly consistent. A congenial debater, with a charming smile and disarming demeanor, can slyly slip arguments past the judge. That later disputants were careful to prevent Jews from slipping these arguments in tells us nothing of what occurred in a different debate at a different time and between different people.
Additionally, Ramban knew that his account of the disputation would be carefully read by Christians bent on discrediting it. It is certainly more likely that he “said these things in the heat of a debate” than “that he would have lied about saying them in a carefully composed document that would surely be shown to the king.” Dr. Berger offers more arguments, too complicated to allow for brief summarization.
My concern, though, is that, absent Dr. Berger, the student of history would have accepted that Ramban lied about the disputation. With the support of apparently solid proofs, he would have incorrectly accepted a moral failing in one of the ba’alei mesorah. It seems hard to escape the conclusion that this is religiously objectionable. We need to recognize that historical speculation is inherently inconclusive and cannot serve as a tool to delegitimize, even slightly, traditional beliefs. Academia may accept that kind of speculation as history but we must answer to a higher authority, one that provides our tradition and leaders the benefit of the doubt.