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Christian Hebraism

Deborah L. Goodwin
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The scope, applicability and usefulness of the term Christian Hebraism has been increasingly contested in recent scholarship. Should it refer only to Christians who demonstrated competence in Hebrew by translations, publication of pedagogical tools, teaching in universities? Should it include interested bystanders who consumed Hebrew texts only in translation? Are gentiles chiefly interested in scientific or medical texts, or in political theory derived from a perceived respublica Hebraeorum, “Christian Hebraists”? The degree to which Christian Hebraism engendered, participated in, or reflected a positive perception of Jews and Judaism is also a controverted topic, evidenced by essays recently collected in Hebraica Veritas?, Philosemitism in History, and the monograph Judaism and Enlightenment. Despite wide variations across eras, regions, and socio-religious cultures, one generalization might be safely made: biblical Hebrew and the religion of ancient and Second Temple Israel (biblical or post-biblical) were accorded more respect and admiration by Christian scholars than were their living Jewish contemporaries and their faith. Even after Christian Hebraism lost its academic luster in the Enlightenment, ambivalence persisted among secular intellectuals. Still, as with other aspects of Jewish and Christian relations, Christian Hebraism is not reducible to simple binaries.

In the face of these disputed questions, this article will describe Christian Hebraism narrowly, and perhaps artificially, as the study and use of Hebrew-language texts, biblical and post-biblical, by religiously motivated Christians. A paradox lies at the heart of Christian Hebraism: since its inception, Christianity has relied on the LXX/Hebrew Bible to validate its very existence. Even early Christians needed Jewish help to construe those texts. But Jewish endurance posed a surd: if Christian claims to God’s favor are true, why does Judaism persist? If the Jews are the “enemies of the Church,” how can they be reliable interlocutors? By viewing the Jews instrumentally, necessary to Christianity as its “book-bearers” even while blind to the books’ meanings (Augustine’s coinage and contention, in Ennarrationes in Psalmos 56.9), Christianity could accommodate, however uneasily, an ongoing Jewish presence. Throughout its varied history, Christian Hebraism has consisted of an array of strategies to legitimize Christian perspectives, using Jews, Judaism, and their religious language and literatures as sociocultural tools to think with. Judaism’s place at both the margins and center of Christian thought, and its role as a tool, stems from Christianity’s volatile ambivalence to its parent faith, labeled by sociologist Zygmunt Bauman as “allosemitism:” regarding the Jew as essentially other (Goodwin 2006, 151-2).

Christian recourse to Hebrew sources was driven by the need to establish a consistent, authoritative text of the Hebrew scriptures that canonical Christianity claimed as its own. The earliest known text-critical project was Origen of Caesarea’s (c. 185-c. 254 CE) Hexapla, which compared the Hebrew text of the “Old Testament” to five Greek translations, including the Septuagint (LXX), the translation produced by Jewish scholars in the 2nd-3rd cent. BCE, and most commonly used by Christians. Origen sought to reconcile the Septuagint with the Hebrew text. He faced a difficulty, however: was the Hebrew text before him the “original”? By what criteria could it be established as more authentically original than the version used by the translators who produced the LXX? Modern scholars debate whether Origen intended to correct the LXX, changing its translation to accord with the Hebrew, or if he meant to uphold the Septuagint’s authority while noting textual variants and correcting scribal errors. Scholars also differ in assessing whether Origen believed that the Hebrew texts available to him were identical to the “originals,” or if he recognized that the Hebrew text itself has a transmission history, accreting changes and variations over time. The notion that the Hebrew text, as encountered by Christians in the hands of Jewish contemporaries, was substantially more authentic and authoritative than any translation remained a guiding principle for Christian Hebraists until the early modern era.

A generation later, Christian scholar and controversialist Jerome (c. 345-420) revisited the task of establishing an authoritative Hebrew Bible/ “Old Testament” text, this time confronting the issue of multiple, conflicting Latin translations from the LXX. Initially he sought to produce a corrected Latin version. He became convinced that this undertaking was doomed, because the Septuagintal translation varied from the Hebrew text available to him. Those variants, he argued, proved that the LXX’s Jewish translators failed to recognize – or deliberately suppressed – Christian truths revealed in the “Old Testament”. Crucial to Jerome’s position was his belief that the Hebrew text of scripture as he encountered it was identical to the text used by earlier translators. Any variation between the Hebrew text he consulted and the Greek translation (further translated into Latin) used by the church was the fault of translators. He believed that the Hebrew text was permanently fixed and the source of incontrovertible truth. The best remedy would be a fresh translation from the Hebraica veritas, which Jerome launched in the 390s. During the next fifteen years, he issued fresh texts of the Hebrew Bible; some books were translated from the original while others were revisions of existing translations. The full extent of Jerome's mastery of Hebrew is debated by modern scholars. Nonetheless, Jerome’s translation, known as the Vulgate, eventually became the version most used in the Latin West, though not without competition from other, older translations, collectively referred to as the Vetus Latina.

Jerome acquired his expertise in Hebrew language and the Jewish exegetical tradition by means that became typical for later Christian Hebraists: he studied with a convert from Judaism. When living in Palestine and producing a range of etymological and onomastical tools in addition to his translation and commentaries, he consulted with Jewish experts. Later Hebraists would echo Jerome’s goal in this pursuit: by equipping the Church with the most accurate rendition of the scriptural texts, Christians could counter Jewish accusations that Christological proof-texts “stand not so in the Hebrew” (Jerome's preface to the Liber Psalmorum iuxta Hebraicum translatus). Correcting scribal errors, reducing confusion caused by variant manuscripts, addressing polemical and theological anxieties arising from an apparently unstable sacred text: all contributed to Christians’ repeated perceived need to return ad fontes, to the original languages of scripture.

Although the Church was slow to accept Jerome’s new translation of the Old Testament, his posthumous reputation as Christianity’s preeminent vir trilinguis grew rapidly. Later Christians confronted by faulty manuscripts or suspicious variants pursued the remedies he had pioneered. 9th-cent. Carolingian exegetes such as Hrabanus Maurus consulted with contemporary Jews and/or Jewish apostates to achieve a corrected text, assuming, as Jerome and others had done, that the Hebrew text preserved in the Jewish community was immutable. The effort to cast Charlemagne’s kingship in a Davidic model prompted a study of the historical books of the Bible and their exegesis, again facilitated by contact with Jews. Carolingian-era scholarship, along with Jerome’s onomastic and etymological works, formed significant tributaries to the Glossa ordinaria, the series of biblical commentaries widely used from the early 12th cent. forward.

The Glossa ordinaria witnesses to a revival in Christian contact, and controversy, with Jews. Factors contributing to the 12th-cent. rise of Christian Hebraism included a revived concern for the biblical text’s stability and accuracy; curiosity and unease occasioned by the small, dispersed, but significant Jewish communities within Europe; an intellectual “renaissance” that included renewed interest in textual study; and the “evangelical awakening,” a spiritual movement focused on a closer following of Jesus’ teachings in the Jewish context of Christian origins. Once again, Christians consulted with Jews whose expertise provided insight into the world of Jesus of Nazareth and the Hebrew scriptures, while simultaneously maintaining that the Jews remained “stationary in useless antiquity,” as Augustine had put it (Tractatus adversus Iudaeos, 8), blind to the truths disclosed in their own books. Some exegetes reconciled this tension by insisting that Jewish scholars could provide guidance on the literal meaning of the Hebrew text, even while its higher, spiritual sense presumably remained a mystery to them. Scholars such as Hugh (1096-1141) and Andrew (c. 1110-1175) of the Parisian abbey of Saint Victor, and their likely student, Herbert of Bosham (d. c. 1194), used data gleaned from Jewish interlocutors to elucidate literal and historical cruces in the Old Testament. Herbert eschewed the long Christian tradition of interpreting the psalms as prophecy of Christ, for instance, in favor of historical interpretations he learned from the exegesis of R. Solomon ben Isaac (Rashi) of Troyes, d. 1104. For other Christians, access to Jewish texts occasioned fresh opportunities to confront Jewish unbelief, and to attempt to convert the Jews by advancing Christological proof-texts obtained from the Hebrew Bible and, later, the Talmud.

There is little evidence to suggest that the Victorines, Herbert, or other 12th-cent. Christians who consulted Jewish sources were able to read Hebrew independently. Herbert refers to his “diligent interlocutor” (perloquaceum) who helped him interpret Rashi’s commentary on the Psalms, on which Herbert relied heavily. Christians and Jews discussed biblical texts in their shared vernaculars, and Christians may also have consulted the la'azim, Jewish-authored glossaries that provided vernacular translations of Hebrew terms. Christians’ inexpert or passive literacy in Hebrew gave way to increased expertise in the 13th century, aided by familiar biblical texts that were equipped with interlinear translations and used as pedagogical tools. Judith Olszowy-Schlanger has demonstrated that at least some Christians acquired significant expertise in Hebrew, independent of interlocutors, in this period.

Members of the new mendicant orders pursued Hebrew learning to enlarge their grasp on biblical history and prophecy (the Franciscans, typically) or to induce Jews to convert to Christianity (the Dominicans). Controversialist literature, such as the Catalan Dominican friar Ramon Martí’s Pugio Fidei (ca. 1280), gave Christians access to rabbinical texts in translations, enabling them to claim expertise in Jewish traditions without having mastered the language. Some 13th-cent. Christian Hebraists demonstrated real facility with biblical and rabbinical Hebrew, however. The Council of Vienne (1311-12) had dictated the creation of university posts devoted to teaching Hebrew, Arabic, and Syriac, so that Christian missionaries might learn “the languages most in use by unbelievers” (Constitutions of the Council of Vienne, 24). Most notable was the Franciscan Nicholas of Lyra (c. 1270-1346), whose comprehensive biblical commentary made copious use of Rashi’s works. Where or how Nicholas learned Hebrew is unknown. While it is unlikely that his sophistication extended beyond reading Rashi – on whom he relied for quotations from the Talmud – Nicholas was regarded until the Reformation as the most competent Christian Hebraist since Jerome. His Postilla litteralis super Bibliam (1322-32) became the most widely circulated of biblical commentaries. Lyra’s text was supplemented by the Jewish convert Paul of Burgos’s Additiones (1429-31), that amplified and corrected Nicholas’s Hebrew scholarship. Nicholas was not an uncritical consumer of Jewish exegesis: he endorsed Rashi’s interpretations when they comported with Nicholas’s claims that the Hebrew Bible literally, not merely figuratively, was correctly understood only in Christological terms. The Postilla with Additiones supplied most Christian scholars with access to Hebrew biblical knowledge they needed (it was the first biblical commentary to be printed, 1471-2), while increasingly restrictive, violent treatment of Jews in western Europe resulting in expulsions reduced the perceived value of missionizing.

The preeminence of Lyra’s commentary would be challenged by the New Learning of the 15th century. Renaissance humanists’ return ad fontes promoted the study of scripture’s original languages, driven by reformist zeal and/or coupled with asserting Hebraic origins for an Ur-religion that had animated other ancient civilizations. Converts to Christianity such as Flavius Mithridates and Mattheus Adrianus (1475-1530) provided Christians with instruction in Hebrew language and translated texts, including those from the Kabbalah. Christian scholars, e.g., Pico della Mirandola (1463-94), Johannes Reuchlin (1455-1522), and Konrad Pellikan (1478-1576), studied Kabbalah in the belief that it provided insight into the prisca sapientia or confirmed truths of Christian dogma such as the Trinity. Pellikan, Reuchlin, and their successors produced pedagogical tools, largely spurred by Reformation / Counter-Reformation debates over the sources of biblical authority. The 16th century was a high-water mark in Hebraism: Stephen Burnett identified more than 30 competent Hebraists in German-speaking lands alone by 1535, and nearly 400 Hebrew books printed for mainly Christian use in Northern Europe alone (Burnett 2004, 185), out of a total of approximately 1800 Hebrew titles printed in the 1500s (Dunkelgrün 2017, 326).

Besides the debates among Catholics and emerging Protestant sects, factors influencing the expansion of Hebrew study included an explosive printing industry that made pedagogical tools and Hebrew texts widely available; the spread of humanist “trilingual” colleges (sparked by Erasmus’s foundation at Leuven) that promoted Hebrew to shared status with classical Greek and Latin; and the “discovery” in the Americas, Asia, and Africa of cultures, languages, and religions beyond the orbit of European biblical culture. Despite this expansive intellectual environment, Hebrew and contemporary Judaism continued to be relegated to the status of tools to assist Christian thought, or to abuse one’s sectarian adversaries. Long before publishing Von den Juden und Ihren Lügen (On the Jews and Their Lies, 1543), Martin Luther habitually condemned Jews in his biblical commentaries as proxies for Catholics. Lutheran and Calvinist Hebraists pursued the study of the Hebrew Bible with great vigor as they asserted that scripture alone was the ultimate authority for Christian life, and that the reformed Church was the true successor to the apostolic age. Defending their use of the Latin Vulgate, Catholics countered that the Hebrew text had a history of its own: contemporary Hebrew sources were not identical to the earliest witnesses and therefore not more reliable than the text used by the Church for centuries. 17th-cent. Calvinists Joseph Scaliger (1540-1609) and Isaac Casaubon (1559-1614) argued that the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible and its apparatus were not, in fact, as ancient as their co-religionists had believed, helping to launch biblical text-criticism as a scholarly, rather than polemical, undertaking.

Conflicting impulses of curiosity and suspicion also affected Christian study of rabbinics; the study of biblical Hebrew was unproblematic but Judaism’s post-biblical literature has persistently been viewed with suspicion. Earlier controversialists used Talmudic texts to indict Jewish practices or to produce theological supports for Christian doctrine. Reformation-era Hebraists mined rabbinical literature to elucidate the New Testament’s references to Second Temple Judaism, even as they criticized the Talmud as a corruption of Biblical truth and the Jews as Jesus’ perennial enemies. Studies of contemporary Jewish life, such as Johan Buxtorf the Elder’s Juden Schul (1603), both extolled and decried Jewish practices they described.  Christians were suspicious of one another, too, accusations of “Judaizing” long having been leveled at Hebraists perceived as giving uncritical credence to their sources. Still, as Anthony Grafton (2011), Guy Stroumsa (2010), Joanna Weinberg (2016) and others have demonstrated, the roots of the comparative study of religions derive partially from Christian Hebraism. Encounters with cultures outside Europe, knowledge of which spread rapidly in print; continued development of text-critical and historiographical tools, especially by Scaliger and Casaubon; and disenchantment with religious and political absolutism in the wake of devastating wars of religion contributed to scholarly detachment from Christian apologetics and helped promote the study of post-biblical Judaism. Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah inspired politicians and jurists especially in the Netherlands and England. They saw in his discussion of the Noachide commandments a new basis for republicanism, and in the respublica Hebraeorum an ideal polity governed by “elders,” or Sanhedrin, not kings or clerics. John Selden’s (1584-1654) works echoed throughout the English Commonwealth’s anti-monarchic political philosophy and literature; Selden regarded the Talmud as a humane and ingenious instrument to ameliorate biblical literalism. The “modernity” attributed to philosophers Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), and biblical scholar Richard Simon (1638-1712) — all of whom debunked as pious fiction the belief that Moses wrote the Torah — and the secularism attributed to David Hume and other Enlightenment luminaries, had 16th-cent. roots.

Again, apparent toleration for Jews qua Jews served Christian interests. The Jews’ progress toward readmission in England during Oliver Cromwell’s protectorate marked a coalescence of Christian millenarian and Jewish messianic expectations. John Sadler (1615-1674) was master of Cambridge University’s Magdalen College, a 17th-cent. center of Hebraism and millenarianism. Sadler also served as Cromwell’s private secretary, and Cromwell’s intermediary with Menasseh ben Israel of Amsterdam (1604-1657). Ben Israel’s book Hope of Israel (English edition, 1652) responded to Christian claims that the Americas’ indigenous peoples were members of Israel’s legendary Ten Lost Tribes. Their reappearance would signal for Jews the coming of the Messiah and, for Christians, the second coming of Jesus Christ. Christians, especially Calvinists, widely anticipated the conversion of Jews as a prerequisite to the second coming. Menasseh argued that the Jews’ readmission to European countries from which they had been exiled would fulfill the corollary criteria that they be found dispersed throughout all nations. Millenarian beliefs held by leaders in the American colonies would help promote Hebrew and Hebraism in the curricula of its nascent colleges, some of which, such as Harvard, had direct links to English Hebraist and millenarian circles.

The Protestant settlers of New England cast their experiences in a “Hebraic” model; theirs was a trans-Atlantic Exodus, followed by a wilderness sojourn, endured in hope of founding a New Jerusalem. When Christian Hebraism is defined as “an attempt to claim the heritage of Israel for Christianity” (Goldman 1993, xxii), its most vivid manifestations persist in the United States. That nation’s preoccupation with its special destiny, frequent convulsions of millenarian beliefs, and its home-grown religion, the Church of the Latter-day Saints, all prompted appropriations of Judaism’s sacred texts. Hebraism continues to surface on the periphery of the learned circles in which it once flourished. Modern American movements such as Christian Zionism and the “Hebrew Roots Movement” demonstrate continuity with the Hebraist impulse to treat Jews, Judaism, and the “sacred tongue” as tools to think with, especially as they relate to eschatological speculation.

In modernity, the specifically religious goals of Christian Hebraism reduced its legitimacy, as “institutional religion steadily lost its intellectual centrality” (Sutcliffe 2003, 41). Hebrew language and literature became part of academic study in both Europe and America, in university departments of Near Eastern Languages, Jewish Studies, and Biblical Studies.  No more than Christian Hebraism have secularism, Enlightenment, or Jewish emancipation resolved the majority culture’s tragically ambivalent relationship to Jews and Judaism. Despite occasional warm personal relationships formed between Christians and Jews under its aegis, Christian Hebraism was and remains an ideological enterprise. Compared with secular modernity, its theological agenda at least made clear its ultimate goals. But as Adam Kirsch commented when reviewing Philosemitism in History, “Ideologies deal in abstractions, and to turn a group of people into an abstraction, even a ‘positive’ one, is already to do violence to them” (Kirsch 2011).

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