The Three Languages of the Renaissance: Latin, Hebrew, and Greek
Renaissance humanist learning was energized by the arrival of Greek biblical manuscripts and classical texts in Greek or surviving in Arabic. Many of these classical texts rediscovered in Arabic were translated into Latin by Jews or Jewish converts to Christianity. Renaissance scholars began to look at the Bible in its original languages of Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic (Chaldean). In 16th century Europe, universities quickly adopted the study of the three sacred languages: Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. ‘Trilingual’ study was a central aspect of the new humanist learning. The first and best printings of Hebrew biblical texts were printed and edited by Jews and converts to Christianity; the earliest Hebrew press dates to 1474. The first complete Hebrew Bible was printed by a Jewish printer, Gershon Soncino, in Milan in 1494. The spread of Hebrew and Greek study in Europe was the work of scholars and leaders such as Pope Leo X. Erasmus of Rotterdam lectured on Greek and prepared his Greek-Latin New Testament while at Queens’ College (1510-15), encouraging Cambridge in the new humanist learning.
In founding St John’s College, the humanist Bishop John Fisher (1469-1535) decreed that fellows and students must always converse in Latin, Greek, or Hebrew—in practice at St John’s, Latin was more popular and Hebrew neglected. The story was different at Queens’. Queens’ first Hebrew scholar was John Joscelyn (Fellow, 1549-77). Joscelyn endowed the Hebrew lectureship when he left the College in 1577; his bequest paid for accommodation built in Walnut Tree Court (north of the Library)—the rent from the building paid for the Hebrew lectureship. Many Hebrew books were bought for the Library at this time. The books in Queens’ Library reflect what was studied here over time—we can say with confidence that based on the Library’s early acquisitions, Queens’ held a strong interest in Hebrew during the Renaissance.
Powerful Tudor figures such as Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas More, John Fisher, and Richard Fox famously promoted the study of Hebrew and Greek in Cambridge and Oxford—encouraging the Renaissance ideal of trilingual study (Latin, Greek, Hebrew). Thomas Bodley, founder of the Bodleian Library in Oxford, was also a great student of Hebrew. In this way they brought England into the Renaissance. Encouragement continued under Elizabeth I and James I.
Why learn Hebrew? Or Jewish law?
In the Middle Ages, Christians studied the Jewish law (mostly in Latin translation) in order to win arguments against Jews to convert them to Christianity. Jewish legal texts were often confiscated and burned, as it was thought that without the Jewish law, Jews would more easily convert. Eminent Jewish thinkers participated in public debates to defend Jewish faith and rights. In the Renaissance, however, attitudes to Hebrew became much more positive and conversion was no longer the central aim of learning Hebrew. The old accusations against Hebrew study of ‘judaization’ were largely forgotten in favour of constructive scholarship, and a new age of Hebrew study came about.
Renaissance scholars were interested in Jewish texts which related to the Hebrew Bible, for Christians the Old Testament. In order to translate the Hebrew Bible, Christian scholars read the biblical commentaries of Jewish thinkers such as Rashi, David and Moses Kimhi, Nahmanides, Gershonides, Saadia Gaon, and ibn Ezra. Translators such as Luther, Tyndale, and the translators of the King James Version depended on Jewish commentators. Jewish thinkers thus influenced Western translations and interpretations of the Bible since the Renaissance. Furthermore, Old Testament translators depended on printed Hebrew Bibles which were mostly edited by Jews or on biblical manuscripts copied by Jewish scribes. In numerous ways, the translation of the Bible would have been impossible without Jewish scholarship.
‘Christian Hebraism’ led eventually to the study of other Semitic languages such as Arabic and Ethiopic, and the rise of Comparative Semitics. Fewer Christians were interested in Jewish legal and philosophical texts for themselves, but those that were stand out as some of the most learned and influential Renaissance thinkers of their times, such as Johann Reuchlin, Sebastian Münster, and John Selden.
England and Jewish Thought
Without Jewish people in England, Renaissance humanists in England had several options to access Hebrew and Jewish learning. The first Hebrew scholars in England were from the European continent. The first English Hebraist of note was Thomas Wakefield (d. 1575), who lectured on Hebrew in Cambridge. As we have seen, Queens’ College had an interest in Hebrew from a very early stage. Many Queens’ fellows donated their collected rabbinical books to the Library, such as Cambridge Platonist John Smith (1618-52). Queens’ remained a place of strong Hebrew and Arabic scholarship until the 1930s, producing Hebrew scholars such as Simon Ockley (1678-1720), Isaac Milner (1750-1820), Samuel Lee (1783-1852), R.H. Kennett (1864-1932), and Herbert Loewe (1882-1940); Arabic scholars Joseph Dacre Carlyle (1759-1804), William Wright (1830-1889), A.A. Bevan (1859-1933); and a Syriac scholar as President, George Phillips (1804-1892).
Secondly, the English encountered Hebrew because of printing. In the 16th century, England’s book trade was dominated by books printed on the continent—England imported nearly two-thirds of its books. Among them would be many Jewish books. The first book printed in England with a substantial amount of Hebrew dates to 1592. We know from inventories and donations, however, that English readers in Cambridge, Oxford, and London began acquiring many Hebrew books from the 1520s onwards. English readers without knowledge of Hebrew eagerly sought out Latin translations of Jewish texts, often translated by converts.
Finally, a third option for English scholars was to study abroad or travel to learn directly from Jewish teachers. English travellers seeking out exotic experiences were invited into Jewish homes and synagogues on the continent—Jews gave English visitors remarkable hospitality. While it was technically not permissible in Judaism, many Jews still taught Hebrew to Christians, others instructed Christians in Talmud (the codification of Jewish law) or kabbalah (Jewish mysticism).
The countless Jews who taught, wrote, translated, edited and printed made a great deal of knowledge accessible to Christian Europe. In 16th and 17th century England, Hebrew grew popular in schools as preparation for university, and some eminent ladies such as Lady Jane Gray may have learned Hebrew. While Jews returned to England in 1655, they did not become citizens until 1753, and could not obtain degrees from Oxbridge or become fellows until 1871.
The Bible in English would have been simply impossible in the Renaissance without access to Jewish thought and the work of Jewish translators, scribes, printers, and editors. In sum, interest in Jewish thought was as strong in England between 1290 and 1655 as it was in European countries with Jewish communities. Queens’ had an interest in Hebrew at least as early as Joscelyn’s endowment of a Hebrew lectureship in 1577. This early Renaissance interest in Hebrew led to the flourishing of Semitic language study in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries at Queens’.