Rarely in life, at least at my stage in life, do we experience the kind of intellectual provocation that shifts our fundamental perspective, causes us to rethink our deeply held assumptions, and leads us to generate alternative or parallel hypotheses. Moving to a new country, however, such as I did when I moved to Great Britain in 2008, can sometimes lead to taking a fresh look at assumptions that we normally take for granted. Soon after my arrival, my perspective on Jewish civilization went through a decisive shift. This shift occurred as the result of seeing the role that Christian Hebraism- the embrace of the Hebrew Bible and all Jewish subjects by European Christian scholars in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries- has played in the development of Jewish studies at the University of Oxford.
In order to share with you the shift in my thinking, I need to tell you a little bit about my deeply-held assumptions. The underlying assumption of my academic training is that Judaism is a microcosm of the major western intellectual traditions, the result of the confrontation between Jewish, Christian, and Islamic thought, and the synthesis of Jewish and western thought. According to this approach, Judaism travelled through every major western intellectual tradition, absorbed the best of it, transmitted it to a neighboring or successor culture, and preserved it after that successor culture had expired. However, this approach, which looked at the transmission of ideas among Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, also viewed these three intellectual traditions, to borrow a phrase, as “separate trajectories.” My perspective as a Jewish intellectual historian required that I look at Christian and Islamic thought, but always from the perspective of Judaism.
Jewish studies have too often focused on the contributions of Judaism to world civilization and on what world civilization has contributed to Judaism. But it has not sufficiently acknowledged the positive influence that European Christianity has had in preserving Jewish civilization. The change in my thinking is the realization that we need to see the history of interaction between Judaism and Christianity not as “separate trajectories” but as “intertwined trajectories.” We need to understand that the history of Jewish and Christian interaction can be characterized by inter-religious pluralism and multiculturalism as well as by mutual competition and hostility. It is time to acknowledge that their interaction can be seen from the perspective of interreligious pluralism and as a tapestry of interwoven threads. And Oxford is, in its simplest formulation, the world’s best surviving example of intersecting religious trajectories and inter-religious pluralism among Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
But let’s begin with the issue of Judaism and Christianity. Since the thirteenth century, Christian orders such as the Dominicans and Franciscans, sought the conversion of Jews through religious persuasion. It began as an effort to show the Jews that the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic midrash proved the truth of Christianity. Passages such as Isaiah’s “suffering servant” were quoted back to the Jews so that we should see the inherent truth in its Christological implications. In order to persuade the Jews of the truth of Christianity, the Dominicans began to study Jewish texts in their original Hebrew. They often relied on Jewish apostates- converts to Christianity- to teach them Hebrew, Talmud, and Midrash.
Beginning in the late fifteenth century, Renaissance Christian humanist scholars came to believe that the wisdom of the past- including ancient classics in Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic- preserved an ancient wisdom that had been lost in their own age. They began to study the Hebrew Bible and other Jewish subjects, including Kabbalah, in their search for the redeeming wisdom of the past. With the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation- what Matthew Arnold called “the Hebraizing child of the Renaissance”- scholars sought the Hebraica Veritas, the original Hebrew meaning of Scripture. Protestant Hebraists sought to understand the origins of Christianity by studying the Hebrew Bible, early rabbinic texts, and medieval commentaries in order to shed light on Judaism at the time of Jesus. They believed that the New Testament could best be read through Jewish eyes. The Christian study of Judaism that began with the purpose of converting Jews now came around to a deeper engagement with the study of Judaism for the sake of strengthening Christian faith. Still others thought that they could find a pristine, universal religion in the supposedly ancient wisdom of the Kabbalah.
King Henry VIII, following his break with the Catholic Church, put English universities under his control in 1535. In recognition of the fact that Oxford and Cambridge were “the nurseries of the Protestant clergy,” Henry VIII established the Regius professorship in Hebrew at Oxford in 1546. Today, this professorship is the longest continuous position in Hebrew studies in the world! Between 1500-1660, according to one estimate, there were 672 Christian Hebraist professorships at European universities (in addition to other Christian Hebraists among the clergy and nobility). Around 2,000 Hebrew book titles were published during this period by Christians for Christians (often with the help of Jews and Jewish converts to Christianity). During the Protestant Reformation, knowledge of Hebrew was indispensable for the learned classes in Europe.
Oxford University’s Bodleian Library holds the world’s most important collection of medieval Hebrew manuscripts and early printed books. Christian Hebraists at Oxford collected thousands of Hebrew manuscripts and books over the centuries covering the entire Jewish literary canon. They acquired sections of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, written in his own hand, and the Kennicott Bible, the most artistically illuminated Hebrew manuscript in existence. They purchased private collections that contained the only surviving copies of important Hebrew texts and the earliest printed Yiddish books including women’s prayer books and Arthurian legends in Yiddish. In the late nineteenth century, the Bodleian acquired 5,000 Hebrew and Arabic manuscripts from the Cairo Genizah including many of the most important records of Mediterranean Jewish life from the ninth to the fifteenth century. These manuscripts showed the intertwined trajectories of Judaism and Islam (but more about that another time). The Bodleian’s Hebrew manuscripts also include Hebrew prayer books that were produced by Hebrew scribes and Christian artists, showing that interaction between Christians and Jews was often collaborative, contrary to the popular narrative.
Preserving the European Jewish Legacy
From the perspective of Jewish civilization, Oxford is one of the most important institutions in the world. The preservation of the records of medieval European Jewish civilization was an unintended consequence of the fascination with Judaism of the Christian Hebraists at Oxford. While the Nazis annihilated six million Jewish lives, obliterated thousands of Jewish communities, and destroyed more than 100 million Jewish books, the Bodleian Library preserved the literary legacy of European Jewry and thereby rescued it from destruction. Without the efforts of these Christian Hebraists, and other Christian Hebraists across Europe, the Nazis might have been successful in destroying the European Jewish legacy.
The Christian Hebraist fascination with Judaism also played a role in the founding of America. In the seventeenth century, English Puritans embraced the idea that the Hebrew Bible presented a blueprint for an ideal society. They idealized the “Mosaic Republic” of ancient Israel as a divinely-ordained republic based on the rule of law, governed by a civil administration, and which promoted equitable distribution of wealth, religious toleration, and freedom of conscience. Some of the Puritans who settled the New England colonies were Hebrew scholars who saw themselves as the new Israelites and who thought that biblical Israel should be the model for their new republic. The founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony brought their Christian Hebraist ideals and their hopes for establishing the Mosaic Republic to America. There is a direct line from Oxford to Boston.
It is time for us to rethink the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. Without minimizing the tragic consequences of Antisemitism, we have to recognize that there were periods, such as the Protestant Reformation, when pluralism and multiculturalism prevailed. And we should also acknowledge the consequences of the work of the Christian Hebraists who preserved the enduring legacy of European Jewish civilization.