The Art of Conversion: Christianity and Kabbalah in the Thirteenth
Century by Harvey J. Hames (Medieval
Mediterranean: Brill Academic) discusses Ramon Llull (ca.
1232-1316), the Christian missionary, philosopher and mystic, his
relations with Jewish contemporaries, and how he integrated Jewish
mystical teachings (Kabbalah) into his thought system so as to
persuade the Jews to convert. Issues dealt with include Llull's
attitude towards the Jews, his knowledge of Kabbalah, his theories
regarding the Trinity and Incarnation (the Art), and the impact of
his ideas on the Jewish community. The book challenges conventional
scholarly opinion regarding Christian knowledge of contemporary
Jewish thought and questions the assumption that Christians did not
know or use Kabbalah before the Renaissance. Further, it suggests
that Lull was well aware of ongoing intellectual and religious
controversies within the Jewish community, as well as being the
first Christian to acknowledge and appreciate Kabbalah as a tool for
conversion. For a recent piece of scholarship Hames has done much to
revise and clarify interreligious esoteric relationships and
influences of Christian monasticism upon the formation of Kabbalah
and vice versa. The story is just becoming known and is likely to
suggest more surprises in the future.
Ramon Llull lived an interreligious vision, where he took instruction in Sufism and mystical Kabbalah. In his epoch making Book of Lover and Beloved her writes:
“Two lovers met. One of them revealed his beloved and the other understood him.
The question arose as to which of the two was nearer his beloved, and my answer to this the lover had knowledge of the demonstration of the Trinity.
Imagine Llull walking through the streets of Barcelona, in deep
concentration upon the mysteries of the divine when he bumps into a
Jewish friend also not looking where he is going
because he was meditating on the nature of the Godhead. Llull asks
the Jew to debate with him on which of their faiths is the true one,
using the conditions of his art of analogy. The
Jew consents and they start out by agreeing that they are both
seeking knowledge of the one God who is the cause of all things.
They then proceed to discuss the nature of the Godhead with
Llull setting out his theories of dynamic activity of the dignities
in their correlatives. The Jew realizes that this Christian’s
understanding of the structure of the Godhead must be correct, and
that Llull’s system has attained insight into the transformative
design of the Sephiroth. He asks Llull to guide him toward God, one
in three, and three and one and converts to Christianity.
It sounds like an extremely unlikely scenario right? Perhaps.
However it is not so far from what Llull thought likely, if his art
were followed, and his demonstration of this Trinity were
understood. Llull was well aware of the intellectual climate of
Catalonia, and knew of the changes taking place within the Jewish
world in the understanding of the nature of God, and his
relationship with creation. The controversy
within the Jewish world over the study of philosophy was part of the
struggle to find new expressions of faith, in the light of the
extreme positions being adopted by some leading figures on
existentialist questions, such as the relationship between God,
creation and the Jewish people. The philosophical
speculation which often led to extreme allegory as to the nature and
meaning of the biblical text became opposed to a movement which
sought to show the immediate connection between God and the creation
by the Sephiroth.
As a theosophy, Kabbalah could provide a normative theology for
the wider community. The Sephiroth tree was able
to establish the link between man and God, provide theological basis
for the performance of the commandments, and offer an ethical
framework for the community as a whole. The
popularization of these teachings awakened many misgivings along the
intellectual elite and these qualms became part and parcel to the
wider debate on the study of philosophy, religious practice, and
It was a period of intellectual turmoil that Llull started his missionary work to convert the infidel to Christianity. Llull, perhaps because of his unique circumstances of education, was able, unlike most of his contemporaries, to harness some of these ideas in his mystical philosophical exposition of the Christian faith – or the art Llull understood that– in order to convince the Jews and the Muslims to convert, the Christian doctrines had to be proven beyond a doubt. That Jews were no longer the believers of the Old Testament as in the times of Jesus, but that their belief had evolved within the shadow of Christian truth, so they evolved a theological study that was formulated in a more sophisticated manner. The legitimization of the existence of Jews in Christian society, which rested on their being the true testimony to an antiquated Judaism, was no longer tenable, because their literature and their religious practice had changed almost beyond recognition.
In Christian circles, Midrash literature was exploited to show
the veracity of the Christian faith. Yet while
this enriched the corpus of Christian literature as far as Contra
Judaism goes, it failed to transcend the use of authority and mere
assertion that ultimately doomed it to failure as a device for
conversion. While such use of Talmud and Midrash increased the
pressure on the Jewish intellectuals, they were not afraid to
appropriate ideas that they found beneficial for their own purposes.
It is possible that there is in the 11th century a early form of
Christian Kabbalah as Llull work shows. However it is not so much
the passing of some traditional one typo religion to another that is
defining movement of the emergence of the new phenomenon of Kabbalah
but the absorption, especially the creative one of the techniques
that are characteristic of one type of war, by a religious thinker
belonging to another religion has this book tries to show Llull
should be seen at least in one level as the start of the Christian
appropriation of Kabbalah. Likewise one can see
this with the appropriation of the divine names from sufi practice.
Jews, Muslims, and Christians in and Around the Crown of Aragon: Essays in Honour of Profesor Elena Lourie edited by Elena Lourie and Harvey J. Hames (Medieval Mediterranean: Brill Academic) focuses on various areas of interaction between Jews, Muslims and Christians in the late medieval Crown of Aragon and its environs. The articles deal with topics such as war, military campaigns, government, politics, and economics, relations between scholars of the different faiths and their sources, sexual relations and the politics of conversion, mythology and music. Other articles touch on issues such as vassalage, mercenaries, fiscal politics, communal politics and the inquisition. This book presents a mosaic of studies written by three generations of scholars who, using a broad variety of sources and methodologies, examine areas of great interest to Elena Lourie.
Like Angels on Jacob's Ladder: Abraham Abulafia, the Franciscans,
and Joachimism by Harvey J. Hames (State
University of New York Press: SUNY) explores the career of Abraham
Abulafia (ca. 1240-1291), self-proclaimed Messiah and founder of the
school of ecstatic Kabbalah. Active in southern Italy and Sicily
where Franciscans had adopted the apocalyptic teachings of Joachim
of Fiore, Abulafia believed the end of days was approaching and saw
himself as chosen by God to reveal the Divine truth. He appropriated
Joachite ideas, fusing them with his own revelations, to create an
apocalyptic and messianic scenario that he was certain would attract
his Jewish contemporaries and hoped would also convince Christians.
From his focus on the centrality of the Tetragrammaton (the four
letter ineffable Divine name) to the date of the expected redemption
in 1290 and the coming together of Jews and Gentiles in the
inclusiveness of the new age, Abulafia's engagement with the
apocalyptic teachings of some of his Franciscan contemporaries
enriched his own worldview. Though his messianic claims were a
result of his revelatory experiences and hermeneutical reading of
the Torah, they were, to no small extent, dependent on his
historical circumstances and acculturation.
"Like Angels on Jacob's Ladder provides an accessible and thoughtful presentation of a very interesting and significant figure in the Jewish mystical tradition. Of equal importance, it elegantly suggests a far more complex arena of Jewish-Christian relations and interaction in the medieval world than typically finds expression in the study of medieval history." -- Nina Caputo, University of Florida
Excerpt: The title of this book is taken from a remark made by Abraham Abulafia (ca. 1240-1291) in the context of a disputation with a Christian, which can be seen as a central theme and thread that runs through his life, thought, and writing. Abulafia likened anyone seeking perfection and knowledge of the Divine intellect to the ascending and descending angels on Jacob's ladder. Each person, like the angels, is able to achieve the truth according to their capabilities and desire and some are closer than others to perfection. Abulafia saw himself as having reached the highest rung of the ladder and therefore, as chosen by God to reveal the Divine truth, concealed over time, because of the fast approaching end. These messianic aspirations, how they were conceived, developed, interpreted, and practiced are the focus of this book and they reveal a fascinating tale of fusion between Jewish and Christian apocalyptic ideas, which burst onto the historical stage at a particularly pregnant moment. A time of heightened expectation for some Christians who had adopted and adapted the teachings of a Calarian abbot, Joachim of Fiore, and for Jews just entering the sixth millennium and hoping that it would signal the end of the exile and the start of the redemption.
Although this book focuses on a particular figure, the thirteenth-century Kabbalist Abraham Abulafia, it is primarily an attempt to show how ideas move between religions and cultures, and how permeable the boundaries erected between them are. Even in a society where there was no equality and the dominant faith influenced and limited the life of the minority faiths in many areas and diverse ways, there was still much scope for the exchange and interpenetration of ideas and this was not by any means one-way traffic. That there were contacts between the intellectuals of the three monotheistic faiths in the later Middle Ages is well documented. Christian scholars worked together with Jews and Muslims translating works from Arabic to Latin, sometimes also via Hebrew. Indeed, this translation activity was going on during Abulafia's lifetime in the courts of Frederick II and Charles of Anjou and some of the characters who appear in this book, such as Hillel ben Samuel of Verona, were involved, even translating Latin scholastic works into Hebrew. However, Abulafia's interaction with his Christian contemporaries was of a totally different nature. He adopted and adapted current Christian apocalyptic ideas, translated them into his own religious, historical, and moralistic world-view, and then repackaged them and tried to sell them back to his Jewish and Christian contemporaries.
Abulafia's works show that he was in constant dialogue with Christianity, or more precisely, with a mode of Christianity highly influenced by the thought of the twelfth—century Calabrian abbot, Joachim of Fiore. Some of the issues involved were intimately connected to the traditional and ongoing polemic between Christians and Jews. This debate had been growing in sophistication, scope, and ferocity since the twelfth century, and reached new heights in the thirteenth century with the trial and burning of the Talmud, the Barcelona Disputation of 1263, and Ramon Marti's enormous Pugio fidei. However, unlike many of his Jewish and Christian contemporaries who polemicized over eschatological themes, Abulafia focused on apocalypticism. Both he and his Joachimite contemporaries were convinced that the world was on the brink of a major change, the start of a new eon, and this made their polemic more immediate and vibrant because it was not dealing with questions that would be settled at some undetermined time in the future. The expected apocalypse was inevitable, was going to happen in the here and now, and therefore it was imperative for each side to show that the truth was with them. Abulafia sets out a counterhistory whereby the portrayal of Jesus, the Church, and the place of the Jews is the opposite of how they are depicted by Christians. He also gave himself a central role, as a serious challenger for the position of redeemer.1 However, his polemic with Christianity and his very negative portrayal of this religion did not have a bearing on the place of Christians at the end of time, in the same manner that the Joachite portrayal of contemporary Jews, not significantly different from mainstream contemporary opinion, did not impinge on their positive inclusion at the end of days.
The focal point of Abulafia's interaction with Christians was the Franciscan Order, or the friars who adopted and adapted the teachings of Joachim of Fiore, and read St. Francis and themselves into his predictions regarding the period leading up to the third status. These friars who, by the middle of the thirteenth century, were to be found in places as diverse as Palermo, Paris, Narbonne, and Rome, read the genuine and pseudo-Joachimite treatises that they, along with the Florensians and Cistercians, contributed to, and saw themselves as one of the orders sent to lead the way into the age of the Holy Spirit. Abulafia's encounter with the friars would have taken place mainly in Sicily and southern Italy where he spent a considerable amount of time from the early 1260s, where he wrote most of his books, and where he conceived and developed his messianic expectations and apocalyptic framework. In his works, Abulafia mentions the Franciscans and it is this geographical location and historical context that gives life and meaning to much of what he did and wrote.
Abraham Abulafia has been the subject of attention by scholars from the mid-nineteenth-century onward. Moshe Landauer suggested that he was the author of the Zohar, and Heinreich Graetz wrote about Abulafia's life and mission.2 Adolph Jellinek published a couple of Abulafia's letters and Sefer ha-Ot (Book of the Sign), his most famous prophetic work, and set the record straight differentiating between Abulafia's Kabbalistic system and the Zohar.3 In his majestic survey of the field of Jewish mysticism published in 1941, Gershom Scholem devoted a whole chapter to Abulafia and ecstatic Kabbalah, though it is notable that aside from part of a lecture series delivered at the Hebrew University and an article in the Encyclopaedia Judaica, Abulafia was otherwise ignored by that doyen of the field. It was Moshe Idel, starting with his doctoral thesis and then in a large number of articles and books, who really came to grips with Abulafia's Kabbalah and its central place in the development of Jewish mysticism from the Middle Ages onward. Idel's groundbreaking work, based on the study of hundreds of manuscripts containing material connected with ecstatic Kabbalah, is now the focal point for all students of Abulafia and the field. In addition, Elliot Wolfson has written an important study which takes a different stance on some of Abulafia's central teachings, particularly regarding his attitude toward the Sefirot and the commandments.
While Gershom Scholem studied Kabbalah from a historical-philological perspective, he did this essentially in order to recover the subterranean currents that were, in his opinion, always present in the Jewish tradition and which revitalized it. He referred to Jewish history as an internal dialectic of contradictory forces, and those undercurrents as emerging from within it, with little or no external influences. Hence, his approach to apocalypticism and messianism, which he saw as predominantly part of the mystical tradition, was as something inherently Jewish. After Scholem, the methodology adopted for studying the texts of medieval Kabbalah has been primarily phenomenological. This places more importance on ideas and their transmission to other texts than in the historical context of the authors and their ideas. This means that while Abulafia is recognized as a major figure in the field of Kabbalah, and his teachings and methods resonate in the writings of later Kabbalists, the historical context of his works have not been closely examined. His place as the founder of the ecstatic school of Kabbalah and his influence on subsequent generations of Kabbalists in Spain, Italy, Safed, and elsewhere has been well attested, yet, the milieu in which he lived and developed his teachings is, surprisingly, almost totally ignored (one example being the opening quotation of this Introduction). The historical-contextual issue is compounded by another fascinating element. Almost from his immediate students onward, the apocalyptic-messianic elements of Abulafia's life and work were set aside, and though many of his works were copied religiously, it was his methods for attaining spiritual perfection, prophecy, and mystical experience which were emphasized and propagated. Modern scholarship has continued this long tradition of almost totally ignoring Abulafia's messianic claims and focusing on his Kabbalistic teachings, a process made easier by the adoption of the phenomenological approach. Where Abulafia's messianic teachings have garnered attention, emphasis has been on the redemption of the individual as being the central axis of Abulafia's teaching, not the physical redemption of the Jews and the conclusion of the exile.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Abulafia's messianic pretensions were embarrassing to his followers, particularly after 1291 when it became evident that he was not the Messiah, and probably also as a result of the sustained campaign and ban placed upon him by one of the leading rabbinic lights of the generation, Solomon ibn Adret. This might also explain why hardly any of Abulafia's overtly prophetic works have survived, and those that have can be interpreted in multifarious ways. This has allowed many Kabbalists over the centuries to ignore the messianic ramifications of Abulafia's teachings and concentrate on the techniques by which high levels of mystical experience and prophecy can be achieved. Yet Abulafia saw himself, first and foremost, as the expected Messiah who would bring the exile to a close, and his Kabbalistic teachings can only be fully appreciated if seen as part of that worldview. Internal redemption goes hand in hand with the external historical redemption that will bring humanity into true knowledge of God. Abulafia's reading of the biblical text is what informs his understanding of his times and mission, and is what allows him to receive the revelations that are the pivotal moments of his life. It is his claim to be the Messiah that gives him the authority to reveal the true meaning of the biblical text and the essence of Judaism. Hence, while Abulafia is primarily known as a Kabbalist, it is those teachings that inform his primary function as a messianic figure. Apocalyptic ideas are heavily dependent on a particular historical context, and Abulafia's messianism has to be understood in relation to the historical circumstances that conditioned him. It is only by placing Abulafia within this historical context that much of what he wrote and preached begins to make sense. It is Abulafia himself who provides the clues that can help make sense of his life, and which show just how involved he was within his particular historical context, and how neither his teachings nor his activities can be divorced from the specific religious, intellectual, political, and geographic surroundings in which he flourished.
What causes someone to pronounce himself Messiah? Is it possible to identify the forces of history, or moments of catastrophe, that motivate individuals to swim against the current and take up the mantle of prophet or redeemer? In a fascinating discussion of the `Isawiyya, a Jewish messianic movement in early Islam (ca. 755), Steven Wasserstrom enumerates the different stages in its development. First is the attempt at accommodation with the majority faith where the `Isawiyya were able to appear to be true believers to Muslims, but also be accepted as Jews by their co-religionists. The second stage, the apocalyptic, was stirred by anti-Umayyad movements and a resurgence of hope that with the fall of the crumbling dynasty, the messianic era would start. According to both Muslim and Jewish sources, Abu `Isa, the messianic figure, had an ascension experience, which led him to take on the mantle of Messiah. This analysis shows the importance of the intimate ties between members of the minority and majority faith, and the significance of the broader historical picture in providing the context for the emergence of the Messiah figure. This may go some way in shedding light on what motivated Abraham Abulafia to pronounce himself Messiah. In this case, however, it is the Christian surroundings that provided the context. The apocalyptic expectations among the Franciscans and others in Italy, coupled with age-old Jewish expectations for redemption and revelation, may shed light on Abulafia's psyche.
There can be little doubt that 5000 AM, the start of the sixth millennium according to the Hebrew calendar, and Abulafia's birth in that portentous year would have been reason enough to jumpstart his messianic speculations. Yet, though aroused to go and find the Sambation River when he was twenty, an act with clear messianic undertones, he did not proclaim himself Messiah until 1276. By that time, Abulafia had traveled widely, and spent time in close proximity with Christians who were expecting major events to occur in the near future. Abulafia's adoption of 1290 as the year of redemption can only be understood in the broader historical context. As we shall see, Abulafia's apocalyptic calculations came from within his own tradition (though with some connection to the Christian Anno Domini), using accepted methods and authoritative texts. However, the importance of 1290, given that it was already fifty years into the sixth millennium can only be appreciated when seen in the Christian context.
The first chapter deals with that Christian context, introducing Joachim of Fiore and explaining some of the central concepts in his writings. Central tenets of Joachimism that resonate in Abulafia's writing are also set out. Joachim died in 1202, but his teachings were passed on via the order he established, the Florensians, the Cistercians, and the Franciscans. All these orders were instrumental in the copying of manuscripts of Joachim's works and in the composition of pseudo-Joachimite works that were to be of major importance in the late thirteenth century. The Franciscans play a pivotal role in this story, and their fascination with Joachim is also elaborated, as well as the teachings that would be so instrumental for their relationship with Abulafia.
A detailed biography of Abraham Abulafia is the subject of the second chapter. Unlike most other medieval mystical authors, Abulafia was relatively forthcoming with biographical details, though what is told is accidental and related to the purpose of the given work. However, looking at the broader historical context and using his works carefully, it is possible to piece together a reasonably detailed portrait of Abulafia's life, influences, motivations, ideas, and activities. It is also possible to see how his thought developed over some twenty years of creative activity. A picture emerges of a man who came to believe that he was the expected Messiah, that his mission was to prepare both Jews and Christians for the fast approaching end, and that he had been given the key to the true interpretation of the biblical text and knowledge of the Divine name.
The next chapter deals with Abulafia's views on universal salvation, a theme with great relevance to Joachim's teachings on the coming together of Gentiles and Jews in the third age. In contradistinction to many of his Christian and Jewish contemporaries who focused on the particularistic aspects of messianic times, Abulafia develops a theory of universal salvation based on a rather sophisticated understanding of history, political entities, and language. He suggests that the Divine economy planned for different religions and this leads him to posit a coming together of the nations of the world in a state of spiritual knowledge of the Divine name in a way very reminiscent of the Calabrian abbot. This implies that for Abulafia, contemporary Judaism was also in a transient phase, and though the closest to perfection, it would also be surpassed.
One particular historical event that has been the focus of some discussion is Abulafia's famous attempt to have a papal audience in August 1280. This episode has been analyzed from different perspectives with disagreement among scholars as to where he got the idea from and what exactly he intended to say to the pope. Much has been made of the sudden death of the pope on the very night before Abulafia intended to have his audience. However, the significance of the date he chose, and of this event in the broader historical context has not been examined. Hence, the penultimate chapter reexamines Abulafia's visit to Rome in 1280 in some detail. Abulafia's attitude toward Christianity is crucial for understanding what he intended to achieve from his papal audience. A close reading of the texts shows that the audience was to occur on a very precise day at a very auspicious moment, and the death of the pope on that very day, after his refusal to receive Abulafia, was a clear sign that he was the Messiah, that the power of Christianity was on the wane and that the end of days was fast approaching.
The previous chapters have established just how dependent Abulafia's messianic ideas were on his historical context and his appropriation of Joachimite concepts. The last chapter attempts to set out possible reasons why elements in the Franciscan order may have been interested in helping Abulafia see the pope. A Jew preaching the end of Christianity and other blasphemies would surely not have gained much sympathy from his Christian contemporaries, yet brief comments in Abulafia's works allow us to construct a network of people, both Jewish and Christian, that Abulafia, directly or indirectly, was in touch with who could have been in a position to help him arrange the audience. While these Christian and Jewish figures may have had different motivations for helping, or at least not hindering, Abulafia, and while not, in any way, conclusive, this chapter shows that there may have been some method to his madness.
The writing of this book was facilitated by the sudden appearance of reasonably good and reliable editions of almost all of Abulafia's extant works. Though found in hundreds of manuscripts, aside from the publication of a few short works and excerpts in the late nineteenth and twentieth century, nothing had been published. This by no means reflected a lack of interest in Abulafia's Kabbalah, but was the direct result of the ban promulgated by Solomon ibn Adret against his works. This ban was so effective, that it was only toward the end of the last decade of the twentieth century, some six hundred years after the ban was placed, and some four hundred years after the invention of the printing press, that ultra-orthodox Jews in Jerusalem, students of Abulafian Kabbalah, decided to print his works. In order to do so, they had to find ways to circumvent the ban of a figure still considered within the orthodox world as a major Halachic authority. The editor of the series does this in the introduction to the first volume by showing that many other great rabbis over the generations had ignored the ban and studied Abulafia's works. The editor names and cites many of these sources to justify his project. His reasoning is that if those great luminaries over the ages could ignore the ban, then surely, it is permissible for him to do the same.
Orientalism, Aramaic and Kabbalah in the Catholic Reformation by Robert J. Wilkinson (Studies in the History of Christian Thought: Brill) shows how the first edition of the Syriac New Testament illustrates how Syriac and other Oriental languages were received in the West by Catholic Kabbalistic scholars. The contribution of Egidio da Viterbo and Guillaume Postel is emphasised.
Focusing upon the extraordinary circumstances of the production of the editio princeps of the Syriac New Testament in 1555 and establishing a reliable history of that edition, this book offers an new account of the origin of Syriac studies in Europe and a fresh evaluation of Catholic Orientalism in the sixteenth century. The reception of Syriac into the West is shown to have been characterised, under the influence of Egidio da Viterbo and Postel, by a Christian Kabbalistic worldview which also determined the reception of other Oriental languages.
The companion volume The Kabbalistic Scholars of the Antwerp Polyglot Bible exhibits the continuing influence of Christian Kabbalism on later editions.
Excerpt: Historians often allow themselves the imprecision of speaking of 'the Bible'. But 'the Bible' (dare one so put it?) is a theological abstraction. What we encounter empirically are bibles--and they are all different. They differ in canon, order of books, language, and text. If they are translations, their relationships to their original may differ considerably. Nor do they come naked into the world. Most bibles provide guidance instructing the reader how to read them--their own hermeneutic key, as it were.
The following pages seek first to recognise the specific features that characterise the first sixteenth-century edition of the Syriac New Testament. My description of this book, however, does not seek bibliographic precision and may, I fear, irritate the purist. My remarks extend no further than those features for which I feel I am able to give some sort of explanatory account. Nevertheless I have taken seriously the task of explaining the reasons why this bible considered as an artefact—is as it is. I hope I have given proper attention to its typography and text, to its layout and apparatuses, to its prefaces and appendices. Certainly I have sought to explain why it was produced in terms of the ideology and motives of the editors, and to locate those in turn in a broader cultural context, and that within the history of the sixteenth century. Such an attempt will appear in some respects patchy and uneven, but the desirability of such a project--even if total success eludes us will surely be granted by those who wish to place the specific and technical discourses of Bibliography, Philology, Text Studies, and Oriental Languages (or any such like) within a broader historical account as a way of writing Intellectual History that transcends the technicalities of the narrow discipline and contributes to a broader more accessible, but also more comprehensive, account.'
In this respect the following pages seek specifically to articulate a technical appreciation of this New Testament edition from the perspective of Syriac Studies within a broader Early Modern history, and thereby to make a contribution to both. Syriac specialists, not surprisingly, concern themselves in general with the language, literature and history of the Eastern Churches. They have not given extended consideration to the reception of Syriac language and culture in the West. That is not to say that such topics have been ignored, merely that the field has not yet been fully worked.' My debt to certain giants in the field, most notably Giorgio Levi della Vida, is enormous.'
But Semitists working on the Early Modern period (and not on the Old Testament or its 'World') are still rather rare, certainly in the United Kingdom, and the story of these bibles has not yet been told with any degree of completeness. Early Modern historians, on the other hand, rarely have the necessary interest or competence in oriental languages to attempt an account of oriental philology in their period. I hope to be able to persuade them that the story of the printed editions of the Syriac New Testament is an interesting one, and that, far from being a mere recondite footnote to a story about something else, it is in fact an index of a broader ideological and cultural stance that was not marginal in its significance.
I have endeavoured below to explain the editio princeps of 1555. However, the greater part of this work is given over to a reconstruction of the world of Catholic Orientalism in the High Renaissance within which the first Western knowledge of Syriac was contextualised and out of which the editio princeps arose. The distinctive nature of that Orientalism has not previously been used to explain the features of the editio princeps. Nor has it been appreciated that this distinctive world-view is characteristic of all sixteenth-century Catholic editions of the Syriac New Testament. My reconstruction of this world-view thus forms a necessary prolegomenon to a longer account of all sixteenth-century Catholic editions that has already been written and appears as a companion volume to this: The Kabbalistic Scholars of the Antwerp Polyglot Bible.
The social context of this distinctive Catholic Orientalism is provided by the small group of scholars, related closely to each other by friendship, collaboration and correspondence, who studied Syriac in the sixteenth century. These men are not unknown to contemporary historians, though the story of their sustained cooperation on the production of Syriac bibles has not previously been told.' Syriac was conceived in a distinctive way by its first Western student, Teseo Ambrogio, and this particular apprehension, inspired by Egidio da Viterbo, determined the understanding of the language entertained by Widmanstetter, Masius, and later by Guy Lefevre de la Boderie. The consistent presence behind all these bibles, in both linguistic and typographic expertise, was however Guillaume Postel and though his own sense of mission was to develop to a point of such singularity that he was most conveniently treated as insane, he may be fairly said to have both inspired and enabled the Syriac editions of the others. I believe the full significance of Postel's role is made clear here for the first time. The importance of Postel for the production of the Antwerp Polyglot and his influence upon the 1584 Paris edition (brought out three years after his death) when realised only strengthen the case made here.
It is not surprisingly amongst scholars (often these scholars) that such traces as remain of the reception of successive Syriac editions are generally to be found. Syriac, though not an unreasonable expectation of a biblical scholar in the seventeenth century, was rare in the sixteenth and has never in any sense been popular. It was, of course, the achievement of the editions we are to examine to have facilitated the access of later scholars to the Syriac New Testament, its text and its language, though knowledge of very much else had to await the subsequent growth of Maronite scholarship in the West. Nevertheless, Syriac studies in the sixteenth century had a missionary motive that was as strong as any more speculative or arcane interest. The intention behind the editio princeps was not only the provision of liturgical books for the Eastern Church, but also the evangelisation of Moslems. Widmanstetter (as well as Tremellius and Guy Lefevre de la Boderie) thought their work would serve to convert the Jews. Though we do not have as much evidence for the reception of these editions as we would like, there is some material for us to review and enough to keep us attentive to the wider usefulness the editors hoped for their work.
I have characterised the work of the scholars who produced the Syriac New Testament editions in two ways both of which may need some explanation. I have generally referred to their productions on the one hand as a type of Orientalism, and on the other (perhaps more controversially) as kabbalistic.
Orientalism is a familiar term. But it is not generally used in sixteenth-century studies, and there is no developed typology for this early period. It has been my concern, however, to link the voyages of Postel (the only one of our scholars to visit the East) that were distinguished by the benefits and fruits of his extraordinary linguistic facility, and the arcane tradition that found the secrets of Aramaean antiquity from the time of Noah mediated through the local histories of Viterbo, Rome, Florence, France or Spain. Characteristically the Oriental 'Other' was found not only in a Biblical past, but also in a local tradition. Postel then found this same local antiquity out East. The linking of the domestic past and Oriental present was based upon a Mediaeval Biblicism, but developed in his case by a well-informed acquaintance with contemporary Easterners and their language. Postel could cope with the languages, could describe with considerable detachment the singularities of the East, but still relegated the whole to share a mythical past that he would reintegrate in the proclamation of his Gospel—that of the One Shepherd and His One Flock. It seems to me that there is a distinctive Orientalism here that is more than Mediaeval Biblicism, yet falls short of the objectivity of, say, Jones's descriptions of Sanskrit. Certainly it is worthy of our attention, however we seek to place it within a wider schema.
I have used the term /cabbalistic to characterise the notions and books of both Jews and Christians. Although where it seemed necessary I have spoken of Jewish or Christian Kabbalah, I have generally used the same word of Jewish mystical writers and of Christians. I have (after experimentation) found it not possible to preserve, say, one spelling for Jewish books and authors and another (perhaps a Latinised Cabala) for Christians. I am aware the Kabbalah was originally Jewish, and that Christians borrowed Kabbalah (with different degrees of erudition) from Jews. I have no wish to deny the proprietary claims of Judaism, but neither do I seek to belittle the spiritual content of the Christian authors (should anyone wish to claim there is one), even though they naturally understood kabbalistic texts in a sense radically different from that of their authors or Jewish readers. Since the Israelites built their Tabernacle from the spoils of Egypt, we have been familiar with the place of both recuperation and bricolage in the construction of the sacred. Personally I have no investment in either Jewish or Christian reading. It may be objected that more than the presence of a superficial Hebrew jeu de mot is needed to make a Kabbalist and that I have not sought rigorously to define how much knowledge of (`real') Jewish Kabbalah a Christian Kabbalist needs to qualify for the title. I would however argue that by any standard the knowledge ofJewish kabbalistic texts shown by Egidio da Viterbo, Widmanstetter, and Postel is extensive and far from trivial. They read, annotated and translated these difficult texts themselves. That their reading of these texts was a monument of Christian eisegesis—plunder, surely, from a Jewish perspective—is of mainly confessional moment. The text becomes Christian once incorporated within a Christian worldview, just as we suspect passages of Canaanite poetry became Israelite by their incorporation in the canonical Psalter. The Christian Kabbalists however did not seek to conceal the Jewish origin of their texts, though they drew from that conclusions that were generally anti-Judaic. To the marginal extent that their conclusions were less anti-Judaic than the prejudices of the majority, they do perhaps have some historical significance. Sadly however we shall find that though a reverence for the arcane wisdom preserved in Hebrew books did practically seem to lead to more cooperative and constructive relationships with some Jewish scholars, not even Postel will be free of the dreary traditional Christian denigration of Judaism. What I insist upon here, however, is that Christian Kabbalah is a most significant component of the world-view of the Catholic scholars who produced the printed editions of the Syriac New Testament. This has not been systematically observed or described before, and whether or not one likes the labels, the reality is inescapable.
I make no claim to have contributed to the study of Jewish Kabbalists.' My contribution to the study of the Christian Kabbalists, I would claim, is to have recovered Widmanstetter's real attitude to the Kabbalah and refuted the common view of him as a man who believed that Kabbalah entered the Church as a Trojan Horse. That point however serves merely to clear the ground for my major claim that what has been missing from previous accounts of printed editions of the Syriac New Testament is precisely their background in the varied kabbalistic speculations of their editors. I use the term widely—of both Egidio's books and Postel's fantasies—but the continuities are real, whether or not (once again) one likes the labels and in that my usage of the term conforms to that of the doyen of Christian kabbalistic studies, François Secret, it may scarcely be called eccentric.'
The Orientalism that I have characterised as kabbalistic was not confined to Syriac studies. Indeed though its use by Christ and His Mother and the arcane content of the Aramaic tradition perhaps gave Syriac an edge over Arabic, one cannot but feel that, had they been able, our scholars would have given priority to the publication of an Arabic New Testament as better able to fulfil their missionary plans. The knowledge of Arabic in the West grew apace with that of Syriac and the same scholars were involved. Widmanstetter we shall see was able to find a kabbalistic core in the Teachings of Islam, and Postel has recently been treated in a study that has given a proper technical assessment of his Arabic philology.' Beginnings were being made in the study of Ethiopic, Samaritan, Armenian and other exotic tongues: scripts were published, lexical items recovered and rudimentary morphological features isolated. I hope I have shown how these varied attempts are to be seen as characterised by the same kabbalistic motivation as early Syriac studies. My concern to show that what I am describing is not merely a feature of Syriac studies but is of such a wider generality as to deserve being labelled as an Orientalism has led me to include some account of studies of these other languages. This entailed certain expansiveness both in the text and particularly in the footnotes. I have sought to offer an initial characterisation in these areas that is not misleading, to indicate the most important evidence and to give essential bibliographic information while at the same time seeking to prevent the whole digressing into unreadability. I cannot claim consistent success, but do hope that the attempt to mark out a whole area will be serviceable to those whom I may convince that what I describe here is of more than marginal significance in the study of sixteenth-century Intellectual History and who may wish themselves to read in this area.
The initial definition of my kabbalistic oriental scholars has been essentially pragmatic, being based upon the documentary evidence of what they wrote. Such an approach may give us some confidence that we are talking about something real rather than merely an imaginative construct. I have however further sought to define this type of scholarship by contrast. I have taken the burning of the Talmud in Rome in 1553 as indicative of a Papal policy towards Judaism and Kabbalah that was both different from that entertained by the High Renaissance Pontiffs and inimical to the work of our scholars. Certainly they thought and said so. We are thus able to use this change in the Curia's attitude to Kabbalah negatively to define the movement that interests us. It also explains to some extent the subsequent suspicions of heterodoxy that attach to the editors of the Syriac New Testament, and indeed why the Syriac New Testament was not first printed in Rome.
Finally I should remark that in the interest of accessibility I have avoided the use of oriental type, but have provided reproductions of significant book pages so that typographic points do not become incomprehensible for lack of illustration. For a similar reason transcriptions of Syriac or Arabic names are ruthlessly anglicised and diacritical points suppressed. I regret that it has not been possible to offer translations of all passages in Latin or other European languages, but decisive considerations of space prevent this. I have however tried to ensure that the sense of the main text can be followed by the reader without ancient or oriental languages.
(While this book was in the press J. P. Coakley The Typography of
Syriac (British Library, 2006) appeared. It is now the authorative
catalogue of Syriac types. Also A. Turo "Un codice ebraico di cabala
appartenuto a Egidio da Viterbo" Bibliothèque d'Humanisme et
Renaissance LXVIII 2006 pg 535-543 now discusses Egidio's notation
on the kabbalistic manuscript Montefiori 319.)
The Kabbalistic Scholars of the Antwerp Polyglot Bible by Robert J. Wilkinson (Studies in the History of Christian Thought: Brill) places the Syriac New Testament in the Antwerp Polyglot within a new appreciation of sixteenth century Catholic Syriac and Oriental scholarship. The Spanish antecedents of the Polyglot and the role of Montano in its production are evaluated before the focus is turned upon the Northern Scholars who prepared the Syriac edition. Their motivation is shown, particularly in the case of Guillaume Postel, to derive from both Christian kabbalah and an insistent eschatological timetable. The principles of Christian kabbalah found in the Polyglot are then shown to be characteristic also of Guy Lefevre de la Boderie's 1584 Paris edition of the Syriac New Testament dedicated to Henri III. This work completes the account of sixteenth century Syriac bibles begun in the companion volume Orientalism, Aramaic and Kabbalah in the Catholic Reformation.
The Antwerp Polyglot Bible is one of the great monuments of sixteenth-century typographic and scholarly achievement. It is surprising then that it lacks a worthy treatment in depth in any language, though there are several important works and articles that provide essential orientation. Predictably much of the secondary literature has been produced either around the Plantin Museum in Antwerp or in Spain. With significant exceptions the earlier Spanish work tended to be celebratory and patriotic as Spanish scholars have in the past shown themselves eager to claim the Antwerp Polyglot, or the Biblia Regia, as the culmination of the great Spanish tradition begun at Alcalá, and to see Montano, the Spanish king's project director, very much as the channel through which the tradition was transmitted to Antwerp. Things look somewhat different from Belgium where the magnificent resources of the Plantin Museum and specifically Plantin's correspondence have enabled scholars to produce fundamental works of scholarship and to emphasise the contribution of North European scholars to the project.
I shall not deny below the continuities that the Biblia Regia shows with the Spanish tradition indeed I shall be concerned to bring certain features of the tradition into sharper focus particularly in the personal contributions of Montano, nor shall I underrate him as a capable diplomat who had the challenging task of getting approval for the bible that has also been named for him as the Biblia de Montano. The fact remains however that much of the work for the bible had been completed before the arrival of Montano in the Netherlands and that the inspiration for that work had nothing to do with Spain, but was a continuation of the work of the small group of northern oriental scholars who previously worked on similar biblical projects. It is the purpose of the present work to establish the contribution of these scholars to the Antwerp Polyglot.
The scholars in question Andreas Masius, Guillaume Postel, Jean Boulaese and Guy Lefevre de la Boderie are, I believe, most helpfully described as Christian kabbalists. That is to say they are interested in reading not only Hebrew, but also other oriental languages like Syriac, in a mystical fashion to discover deep hidden truths. Though their methods and notions were derived from Jewish Kabbalah, the hidden truths they uncovered, it must be admitted, are generally no more than Christian orthodoxies.' However, in the mind of Postel and to a lesser extent those who followed him (Boulaese, Guy Lefevre de la Boderie) the final synthesis of their mystical imagination so far exceeded the contemporary boundaries of tolerable theological innovation as to attract the attention of the Inquisition. Postel was confined as a madman for much of the period under discussion in this book, yet this did not prevent his notions in some part from both instigating and informing the bible project, nor his eschatological timetable from driving the work on.
Similar kabbalistic notions informed the reception of Syriac and subsequently other oriental languages in the West at the time of the Fifth Lateran Council (1513-1515). An important and innovative figure then was the Cardinal Egidio da Viterbo, but the approach was maintained by Teseo Ambrogio, Johann Albrecht Widmanstetter and again Masius and Postel. In a previous work I have shown the importance of Christian kabbalistic notions in the production of Widmanstetter's 1555 editio princeps of the Syriac New Testament.' The present work will demonstrate that the continued influence of these ideas, particularly in the person of Postel, was significant in the promotion of the Antwerp project, explains several features of that great bible, and also helps to account for the problems the bible had with the Inquisition.
The particular prominence given to Syriac rather than Arabic or Armenian or any other oriental language as a carrier of mystical meanings is not accidental nor merely a function of my own scholarly interests. Arcane significance was indeed found in the script and etymologies of these languages. Syriac, however, was considered to be the language of Christ, and, like Hebrew, it was therefore particularly efficient in conveying spiritual truths, and its script was early discovered to carry occult significance like the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Moreover it was easier to print than Arabic and scholars actually had editions of the Syriac New Testament to present and explain. As we shall see they continually lamented the absence of a printed Arabic New Testament. Had one been produced, and Postel written the preface, that would no doubt have been as illuminating as the comments which, as it turned out, can only be found in the introductory or explanatory material published with the Syriac editions.
One has of course to beware of single explanations and simplistic characterisations of what was itself a very complicated project, executed collaboratively and at a time of great political and ideological disturbance. This present work, alas, is not the multi-faceted and encyclopaedic synthetic account of the Antwerp Polyglot Bible that is still awaited. I hope, however, to be able to bring together previous (often excellent, but necessarily partial) accounts to stress the continuity of this bible with work of the earlier Catholic kabbalistic oriental scholars in Northern Europe and to give due weight to those elements in the Spanish tradition which (though in some ways distinctive) may similarly be helpfully defined as kabbalistic.