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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: June 2012

2 - The Revival of Christian Hebraism in Early Modern Europe


Nihil quod nostrum esse in philosophia quod non ante Iudaeorum fuerit.

Reuchlin, De arte cabalistica, 130

Renaissance and early modern philosemitism, inasmuch as it existed, resulted directly from the renewed interest of Renaissance humanists in the ancient past, and particularly from the emergence of Christian Hebraism. Early modern Christian Hebraism and the myth of the Jewish or Hebrew origins of human knowledge were a direct outcome of Renaissance humanism. The scholars who created this field of study, mostly participants in the northern Renaissance beyond the Alps, widened the original humanistic definition of classical learning beyond the Greek and Roman sources beloved by Italian Renaissance humanists, to ancient Hebrew, among other eastern sources. This Hebraic tendency joined the general antiquarian movement of that period that enthusiastically, even obsessively, collected, cataloged, and compared knowledge on cultures and societies. These they considered exotic, whether they were forgotten esoteric ancient cultures or those recently unearthed in the great voyages of exploration.

The English seventeenth-century scholar Ben Jonson chose to put the following words, so descriptive of this widespread phenomenon, into the mouth of a madwoman:

For except

We call the rabbins, and the heathen Greeks

To come from Salem, and from Athens,

And to teach the people of Great Britain

To speak the tongue of Eber and Javan,

We shall know nothing …

And so we may arrive by Talmud skill,

And profane Greek, to raise the building up

Of Helen's house against the Ismaelite,

King of Thogarma, and his habergions

Brimstony, blue and fiery; and the force

Of king Abaddon, and the beast of Cittim;

Which rabbi David Kimchi, Onkelos,

And Aben Ezra do interpret Rome.

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