Who Won the Disputation of Paris?

[the third of my promised posts about the problems in St. Louis]

Peter Schwarz Disputation between Jewish and Christian theologians
Disputation between Jewish and Christian Theologians, by Peter Schwarz

The late Yves Congar wrote a book about Sacred Tradition. When I get a moment, I will summarize the book for you, in full. For now, these ideas:

By sending His Son into the world, Almighty God revealed the truth about Himself. The Scriptures bear witness to this truth, but the written pages are not the Truth itself. We don’t “believe in the Bible,” as if the Bible were God. We believe in the triune God, to Whom the Bible bears witness.

The New Testament contains information about the Truth Himself, namely Jesus Christ. But the New Testament does not contain all the information available. For example, the New Testament does not contain a “Table of Contents” to the New Testament.

At some point, Christians made a judgment about which gospels, letters, and other accounts belonged in the Bible. They made that judgment based on solid criteria. Namely, the Sacred Tradition they had received.

The early Christians had received… what? Christianity. The divine mystery. Communion with Christ through the means He gave us. The life of the Church.

The thing itself has many names and facets. It is: Christian Tradition, with a capital T.

The Scriptures bear witness to it, as do the Fathers of the Church. That is, the holy bishops and theologians of the first Christian centuries. Of course, the Fathers do not bear witness to the divine mystery in the same way that that Scripture does; the Fathers did, at times, make mistakes.

Michelangelo’s Moses

Popes and Ecumenical Councils of bishops have borne witness to particular aspects of Sacred Tradition at various times in Church history. Never contradicting the New Testament, always living out of it.

Now: Imagine that the Messiah had not yet come. Imagine if the greatest teacher of God’s mystery yet to walk the earth was Moses.

We Christians would say: that’s a pure hypothetical. Our brothers and sisters known as Jews would say: That’s why we have our Talmud.

The written Torah–the first five books of the Bible–bears witness to the revelation Almighty God gave to Moses. But those books do not contain everything that God gave the world through Moses.

Moses taught. Moses cultivated a kind of rabbinical school. Moses bequeathed supernatural insight about Torah, about God’s law, God’s wisdom–insight that did not get written down at first. Later on, they wrote it down. Those writings are the Talmud.

Hopefully we can see a certain parallel here, with all due respect to the profound difference of faith, and due respect to both sides of the matter. That is, we can see a certain parallel between 1. our venerated Sacred Tradition–to which not just the New Testament, but also the Church Fathers, holy theologians, popes, and Councils bear witness–and 2. the Torah, to which (our Jewish brethren say) both the written Torah and the Talmud bear witness.
[Please anyone more knowledgeable about this: correct me as needed, charitably, with a comment.]

We Christians say that the Old Testament, taken as a whole, prophesies Jesus Christ’s coming. We say that the Old Testament only fully makes sense by the light of Christ. And that we need to read the Old Testament to understand Christ fully.

Orthodox Jews say: God’s Torah has come to us, through Moses’ teaching, which we find in the written Torah, and in the Talmud. If you want to understand the “Old Testament,” don’t read the New Testament, which is all wrong. Read the Talmud.

A serious divergence in point-of-view. When King St. Louis IX grasped the depths of this divergence, it disturbed him. And it disturbed many of his contemporary, pious 13th-century Christians of France.

closeup of King Louis statue
The Apotheosis of St. Louis

Louis and Co. thought: We Catholics perceive how the Old Testament prophesies Christ and renders Him more understandable. What’s with this Talmud getting in the way of that? Is this why Jews won’t recognize Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ? Because the Talmud ‘gets in the way?’

The Talmud does, in fact, get in the way. It connects the Jewish reader with Moses and his written Torah, bypassing Jesus of Nazareth altogether.

A 13th-century apostate from Judaism had urged Pope Gregory IX to have all copies of the Talmud in Christendom confiscated and destroyed. This would finally open the door to the long-awaited wholesale conversion of the Jews.

Now, the pope might have said to himself, Hold on a minute! and begun asking questions like: What does this man have against his former associates? Why would I let him drag me into his enmity towards the rabbis who tried to teach him?

But instead of pondering such things, Pope Gregory naively accepted this man Nicolas Donin’s ideas. The pope agreed to the absurd concept of a “trial” of the Talmud.

This led to an enormously interesting debate. Two debates, in fact. First, Donin debated the chief rabbis of Paris in front of a secular jury, including the Queen Mother of France and other courtiers of King Louis. After the rabbis bested Donin in that debate, the Christian side decided that a jury of churchmen should actually pass judgment.

In other words, King St. Louis IX may have invented the presumption of innocence in criminal proceedings. But he blithely subjected the Jews’ treasured compendium of teaching to unconstitutional ‘double jeopardy.’

Head of a Pharisee by Leonardo da Vinci
da Vinci “Head of a Pharisee”

The preeminent judge of the second ‘trial,’ the sitting Archbishop of Sens (who at that time outranked the Bishop of Paris) refused to condemn the Talmud. So two years elapsed, between the time of the disputation and the June 1242 public burning of every Talmud in France. Archbishop Cornut of Sens, the powerful dissenter to such violence, had, in the meantime, died.

The point I want to make here is this. No one should condemn a canonized saint for specious, ‘politically correct’ reasons. King Louis IX of France did not hate Jews like Hitler hated Jews. St. Louis was not an anti-Semite, since that term connotes ethnic, racist hatred.

But we can and must clearly condemn King St. Louis IX for the irrational fervor of his piety. The rabbis had made clear and convincing arguments. They had decisively won the Disputation of Paris. But King Louis closed his ears. He failed to recognize the disputation’s clear winner.
Summary of the arguments:

Charge: The Talmud desecrates the names of Jesus and Mary.

Answer: The cited passages do not refer to the Yeshua crucified under Pontius Pilate, nor to the Miryam who gave birth to him. Yeshua and Miryam were common names in Israel for many centuries. Like the name Louis appeared frequently in the annals of France.

Charge: The Talmud denigrates Christians.

Answer: When the Talmud refers to goyim, it means: godless pagans, like the ancient Canaanites. It does not mean Christians.

Jews respect the kindred monotheism of Christians. Just like Christians have respected the kindred monotheism of Jews for centuries.

Charge: The Talmud anthropomorphizes God blasphemously.

Answer: The Talmud does not anthropomorphize God any more than the Old Testament does.

Charge: Jews incorrectly claim that the Talmud contains divine revelation. Such false pretense offends God, Who has in fact revealed Himself truly through the two Testaments.

Christ Himself explicitly condemned the Talmud with this criticism of the Pharisees: “Why do you transgress God’s commandment and make it void for the sake of your traditions, teaching the doctrines and precepts of men?” (Matthew 15:6; Mark 7:8)

Answer: St. Jerome (one of the Fathers of the Church) read the Talmud many centuries ago. He raised no objections to it.

We Jews, studying our Talmud, have co-existed peacefully with you Christians for centuries. The Church has always held that we Jews have a right to practice our religion. What changed?

Further: We distinguish between two categories of writing in the Talmud. The sections we call halakhah contain binding affirmations. The speculative, imaginative sections we call aggadah, and the reader may accept or reject those parts, as the reader sees fit.

Further: How will you succeed in expunging the Talmud from the face of the earth? You have confiscated every copy in France. But copies exist in other countries of Christendom, as yet not confiscated. And even if you confiscated those, more copies remain in Babylonia, Media, Greece, Arabia, and Ethiopia. You will never rid the world of this book, so why try?

We Catholics respect the role of the Church’s magisterium–the living apostolic teaching authority–because we recognize that the books of Scripture do not address every theological or moral problem.

The rabbis in Paris defended the Talmud on the same grounds. The written Torah does not itself resolve every problem, so God established the rabbinate. And the rabbis gave us the Talmud.

Pope Gregory’s successor, Innocent IV, ultimately conceded that the rabbis had won the Paris argument, at least with respect to the final, most-decisive charges.

But, to our shame as Catholics: the French, at King Louis’ order, had already burned every copy of the Talmud in France by then.

We had betrayed our principles. Force cannot compel belief in the Christian mystery. Acts of violence do not foster the spread of the Gospel.

Of course a Christian does not read the Talmud as divine revelation. We respect the wisdom it contains. And we acknowledge that we have no right to burn copies of it.

We owe the one true God, and our Jewish brethren, contrition and penance for what St. Louis ordered in June 1242, after he obtusely misjudged the results of the Disputation of Paris.


3 thoughts on “Who Won the Disputation of Paris?

  1. So, Father, what are you suggesting, that we Catholics should tear down the statue ourselves? It’s good of you to defend the Jews and decry the injustice of the Talmud-burning; but this post is a bit vague as to purpose. I’m a Catholic convert of partial Jewish ethnicity and how I wish the Jewish people could hear the Good News. My mother considered herself a secular Jewish person and raised me without religion. To her credit, she never tried to keep me from Jesus. But most Jews don’t have that freedom. It is drummed into their heads from the time they are children that Jesus is a charlatan, a fake, and worse. They wouldn’t dream of cracking open a New Testament, even if one fell into their hands from the skies. It’s like pork– not kosher. They’re taught it’s lies and fairytales–Jesus is an embarrassment to them. Most Christians don’t know this. They think the Jews just need to hear the Gospel.

    The Lord himself will have to fulfill everything. And respectfully, he will, without us having to offer sorries for crimes this modern Church did not and would never dream of committing. Truthfully, if the Moslems turned around and said sorry for their sack of Byzantium and the hundreds of years of Moslem rule in Spain, what would that accomplish, exactly, in this fallen world which looks exactly like it should because hearts are not given to God? The world won’t change until hearts change. No sorries will effect that miracle, only individual people of all ethnicities and backgrounds putting aside their rebellious pride and admitting they are sinners in need of a Savior.

    1. I appreciate your writing, and I think you capture the situation well. I apologize for the ‘vagueness of purpose’ in the post. But I think trying to see both sides of things can help change hearts.

      ”For Christians the heavy burden of guilt for the murder of the Jewish people must be an enduring call to repentance; thereby we can overcome every form of anti-Semitism and establish a new relationship with our kindred nation of the Old Covenant.” –Pope St. John Paul II

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