Jew for Jesus: Geronimo de Sante Fe

This article was taken from page 222 of the 1995 Orion edition of historian Paul Johnson's "A History Of The Jews". Prof Johnson is not Jewish, but his words would echo just as strongly if he was - or wasn't.

It was against this background that the last of the great Jewish-Christian debates took place at Tortosa in 1413-1414. It was not a genuine debate, more a public show - even a show trial. Ferrer did not officially participate but he acted behind the scenes. His aim seems to have been to whip up popular enthusiasm for Christianity as the sole valid religion; to demolish the claims of Judaism in a big public spectacle; and then, with church, state and populace behind him, and the Jews demoralized, to effect a mass conversion. The Jewish leaders wanted nothing to do with it. But in many cases the rabbis had no choice but to attend. The antipope, whom Ferrer was later to disown, presided. Ferdinand, the king Ferrer had made, controlled the political framework. Some seventy seats were provided for cardinals, bishops and other grandees. Benedict announced right at the beginning that it was not proposed to hold a discussion between equal parties but to prove the truth of Christianity from talmudic sources. It was, in effect, the trial of the Jewish religion. The prosecution counsel was Joshua Lorki, one of Ferrer's [Jewish turned Christian] converts, renamed Geronimo de Sante Fe. There were about twenty Jewish participants... They were under threat from Geronimo right at the start, both for 'Jewish obstinacy' and, ingeniously, for heresy against their own religion, which would have put them in the power of the Inquisition.

The ground covered was chiefly the familiar one of proving Jesus the Messiah from Jewish sources, through Original Sin and the causes of the Exile were also discussed, and many technical questions on Jewish texts were raised on the Christian side. The Christians were by now very well briefed for this kind of exercise and Geronimo was both learned and clever. A total of sixty-nine sessions were held, over twenty-one months, and while the rabbis were in Tortosa, Ferrer and his friars were moving through their leaderless communities, making converts. In some cases the converts were brought to Tortosa for display and to provide a triumphant counterpoint to the Christian propaganda within the disputation. Rabbi Astruk ha-Levi protested vigorously as the debates dragged on:

We are away from our homes. Our resources are diminished and are almost entirely gone. In our absence great damage has occurred to our communities. We do not know the fate of our wives and children. We have inadequate maintenance here and even lack food. We have been put to extraordinary expenses. Why should people suffering from such woes be held accountable for their arguments, when contending with Geronimo and others who are in the greatest prosperity and luxury?

Rabbi Astruk contended that a point was reached when no further purpose was served by repeating the old arguments - it was a matter of what each man believed. What did a stage-managed debate against a background of hostility prove? 'A Christian living in the land of the Saracens [Arabs]', he said, 'may be defeated by the arguments of a pagan or a Saracen but it does not follow that his faith has been refuted'. During the later stages of the dispute, the Jews claimed they did not understand the questions and tried, whenever possible, to preserve a dignified silence.

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