The new missionizing argumentation presented a serious challenge. Given the coercion exercised, there was no way for the Jews to avoid hearing the innovative argumentation. As suggested earlier, these new approaches had many advantages, intellectual, psychological, and tactical. Jewish leadership had to concern itself with the development of effective counterargumentation that would blunt any potentially harmful impact the new claims might have.
The new-style sally reflected in the Milhemet[*]Mizvah[*] was not a serious one, and the Jewish response need not detain us. The rabbinic text used in Rabbi Isaac ben Yedaiah's Commentary on the Aggadot of the Talmud was far more significant and, as we have seen, was used in the Barcelona confrontation by Friar Paul. Rabbi Isaac's response shows us Jewish attempts to grapple with the new Christian thrusts at an early stage; it is lengthy and addresses a number of issues. First, he clarifies the Jewish conception of the Messiah, which is, he insists, radically different from that of the Christians.
We anticipate and believe in a King Messiah who will arise, one man among his people, imbued with divine spirit. He will rouse himself to govern his people and to serve as king over them and, annointed with oil, to extricate them from the travails of their subjugation. That king will be a king of flesh and blood, a pious and upright man, and his God will assist him in extricating the people from the burden of rulers who oppress them. . . . That king will arise from the midst of his brothers, as did Saul and David and Solomon his son, the kings who ruled as divine emissaries and whom God had chosen for that purpose and who were annointed with oil by the prophet. Thus will be the King Messiah. . . .
That king whom the prophets promised has not yet come, but he will in the future come. If the sounds of his chariot have tarried to this point, nonetheless his time is near and he will surely come. He will not tarry.
Rabbi Isaac argues that the effort to see in the rabbinic statement proof of Jesus is hopelessly misguided, for the rabbis were talking about a completely different messianic figure. Nothing can be gleaned here to support Christian truth.
The claim that the rabbinic text could not reflect the Christian messiah still left the problem of the text itself, and Rabbi Isaac explains its meaning as well.
With regard to your question as to what [the rabbis] of blessed memory came to teach us by saying that he was created in their days, know you, who study and scrutinize these words of theirs simplemindedly, that they of blessed memory followed, in these words of theirs, in the paths of the prophets who speak of something which will happen in the future in the language of the past. Since they saw in prophetic vision that which was to occur in the future, they spoke about it in the past tense and testified firmly that it had happened, to teach the certainty of his [God's] words—may he be blessed—and his positive promise that can never change and his beneficent message that will not be altered. The sages of the Talmud looked back to Moses and the rest of the prophets—prophets of truth—and said here that the Messiah had been created, since the people was certain in the Lord that a new king would arise for them.
Thus Rabbi Isaac finds the Christian reading of the text impossible and proposes a simpler Jewish reading, a projection of future events in the language of the past, that he claims is a venerable and accepted style of literary presentation.
There is one more point in Rabbi Isaac's lengthy rebuttal which deserves attention. It is a point of view that we have already encountered in the Milbemet[*]Mizvah[*] and will encounter again in Nahmanides' responses in Barcelona.
If it is as you say—that our Messiah has come some time ago and went to Rome, where he established for himself a residence and a walled city—then how could the Jews of that generation not believe Elijah who came to inform them about him. Indeed he was their prophet when he was among the living and appeared to them now to inform them that he [the Messiah] had come to save their lost souls. If they would listen to him,
then on that very day he [the Messiah] would come; he would not tarry if they would listen to his voice and believe in the Trinity. He would gather up their exiled, and the children would return to their borders. How could the sages of that generation not believe the faith of the Christians through the prophet who came from the divine to teach them that this was the Messiah of the Lord who had been caught up in their degradation and who would redeem Israel and never know death?
Thus, in addition to the earlier claim of the impropriety of reading Christian conceptions into Jewish sources, Rabbi Isaac further argues the implausibility of the Christian reading of the text. If the Christian reading were accepted, then the Jewish failure to heed the message contained in such a text is beyond understanding. While a cogent response, this early counterargument was a dangerous one, allowing for Christian counter-counterclaims of Jewish blindness and malevolence in misunderstanding and rejecting divinely sent messages both prophetic and rabbinic.
In any case, Rabbi Isaac affords us a fine sense of early Jewish response to the new argumentation. Neither the thrusts nor the parries are yet as sharp as they will eventually be. Both sides still had to learn its full implications.