Christian Humanism and the Jews

  • Jerold C. Frakes


The cultural significance of the Humanist treatises on Yiddish may be grasped only in the larger context of the Humanistic study of Judaism and its languages, for which it is necessary to look back especially to the history of the Christian study of Hebrew prior to the Renaissance.1 While there was sporadic theoretical (and occasionally even practical) interest in Hebrew on the part of Christians during the millennium before 1500 C.E., there were very few Christians who gained anything that might be recognized as actual practical competence in the language. In this respect one must also note that such a competence would always have been directly tied to reading the Bible for the sake of an enhanced Christian interpretation of Scripture and not, for instance, of understanding any aspect of historical or contemporaneous Jewish culture for its own sake and thus perhaps in improving relations between the Christian and Jewish communities. Even in this very circumscribed field of endeavor, however, as Jerome Friedman observes about the periods prior to the Humanist era: “Other than Nicholas [of Lyra] and Jerome before him, it is difficult to point to a single Christian who made a lasting contribution to Christian scholarship predicated upon a knowledge and use of Hebrew”.2 In the period of early Humanism, the picture was, as Frank Manuel points out, not much better: still relatively few Christian scholars had any competent knowledge of Hebrew and Aramaic. Course curricula—then, as now—are misleading and “academic history overflows with unfulfilled requirements” (Manuel 11).3


Jewish Community Textual Criticism Latin Translation Jewish Scholar Late Fifteenth Century 


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  1. 1.
    On the Christian study of Hebrew before the period of the Renaissance, see Wilhelm Bacher, Die hebräische Sprachwissenschaft vom 10. bis zum 16. Jahrhundert (Trier: Sigmund Mayer, 1892)Google Scholar
  2. Matthias Thiel, Grundlagen und Gestalt der Hebräischkenntnisse des frühen Mittelalters (Spoleto: Centro Italiano di Studi sull’alto Medioevo, 1973)Google Scholar
  3. William Horbury, ed. Hebrew Study from Ezra to Ben-Yehuda (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999), pp. 207–67.Google Scholar
  4. 2.
    Jerome Friedman, The Most Ancient Testimony: Sixteenth-Century Christian-Hebraica in the Age of Renaissance Nostalgia (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1983), p. 14.Google Scholar
  5. 3.
    On the study of Hebrew by Christians in the early modern period, the scholarship is vast. An excellent older bibliography on Christian Hebraica during the Renaissance and Reformation is found in Salo W. Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, vol. 13 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969), pp. 389–463Google Scholar
  6. G.H. Box, “Hebrew Studies in the Reformation Period and After: Their Place and Influence,” in Edwyn R. Bevan and Charles Singer, eds. The Legacy of Israel (rpt. 1965; Oxford: Clarendon, 1927), pp. 315–75Google Scholar
  7. Frank Rosenthal, “The Rise of Christian Hebraism in the Sixteenth Century,” Historia Judaica 7 (1945), 167–91Google Scholar
  8. James Parkes, “Early Christian Hebraists,” Studies in Bibliography and Booklore 4 (1959), 51–8Google Scholar
  9. Leon Roth, “Hebraists and Non-Hebraists of the Seventeenth Century,” Journal of Semitic Studies 6 (1961), 204–21CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 4.
    Ora Limor and Israel Jacob Yuval, “Skepticism and Conversion: Jews, Christians, and Doubters in Sefer ha-Nizzahon,” p. 159 in Allision P. Coudert and Jeffrey S. Shoulson, eds. Hebraica Veritas? Christian Hebraists and the Study of Judaism in Early Modern Europe (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).Google Scholar
  11. 7.
    See Karl Heinz Burmeister, Sebastian Münster: eine Bibliographie mit 22 Abbildungen (Wiesbaden: Guido Pressler, 1964)Google Scholar
  12. Stephen G. Burnett, From Christian Hebraism to Jewish Studies: Johannes Buxtorf (1564–1629) and Hebrew Learning in the Seventeenth-Century (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1996)Google Scholar
  13. Jerome Friedman, “Sebastian Münster, the Jewish Mission, and Protestant Antisemitism,” Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte 70 (1979), 238–59Google Scholar
  14. Matt Goldish, Judaism in the Theology of Sir Isaac Newton (Dordrecht and Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishing, 1998)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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  16. Marion L. Kuntz, Guillaume Postel, Prophet of the Restitution of All Things. His Life and Thought (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1981)Google Scholar
  17. Chaim Wirszubski, Pico della Mirandola’s Encounter with Jewish Mysticism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. 8.
    See especially Walter Berschin, Griechisch-lateinisches Mittelalter: Von Hieronymus zu Nikolaus von Kues (Bern: Francke, 1980)Google Scholar
  19. Jerold C. Frakes: Greek Letters and the Latin Middle Ages: From Jerome to Nicholas of Cusa (Washington: Catholic University Press, 1988).Google Scholar
  20. 11.
    Frank E. Manuel, The Broken Staff: Judaism through Christian Eyes (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), p. 4.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. 13.
    On the phenomenon of the trium linguarum peritus, see Berschin, Greek Letters and the Latin Middle Ages, pp. 18-26; Ludwig Geiger, Das Studium der hebräischen Sprache in Deutschland vom Ende des 15. bis zur Mitte des 16. Jahrhunderts (Breslau: Schletter, 1870), p. 2.Google Scholar
  22. 16.
    Heiko A. Oberman, “Discovery of Hebrew and Discrimination against the Jews: The Veritas Hebraica as Double-Edged Sword in Renaissance and Reformation,” pp. 19-34 in Andrew C. Fix and Susan C. Karant-Nunn, eds. Germania Illustrata: Essays on Early Modern Germany Presented to Gerald Strauss, = Sixteenth Century Essays and Studies, 18 (Kirksville, MO: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1992), pp. 19Google Scholar
  23. 18.
    Among his many publications relevant to this topic, see Michel Foucault, L’archéologie du savoir (Paris: Galimard, 1969).Google Scholar

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© Jerold C. Frakes 2007

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