Hebrew Language

   Although the early Christian church accepted the Hebrew scriptures (known to Christians as the Old Testament) as part of its own divine revelation, relatively few early Christian biblical scholars learned Hebrew, and most Christians relied on the ancient Greek translation (the Septuagint) used among Greek-speaking Jews settled in Egypt. Saint Jerome (ca. 340—420), the reputed author of the standard Latin translation of the whole Bible (the Vulgate), did master Hebrew and consulted both the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish biblical commentators, but after his time, relatively few theologians in the Latin church used either the Hebrew Scriptures or commentaries produced by Jewish scholars. In the 14th century, the Franciscan theologian and biblical commentator Nicholas of Lyra (ca. 1270-1349) learned Hebrew and cited Jewish commentators, but in general, Western theologians worked in isolation from Jewish biblical scholarship and also from the original Hebrew text. This neglect of the language and its literature is especially striking because significant communities of Jews lived in many parts of western Europe. Religious prejudice, not lack of opportunity, was the cause of Christian theologians' ignorance of Hebrew. A rich literature, embracing not only biblical studies and religious tracts but also secular themes and literary genres, flourished within these Jewish communities, especially in Italy, Spain, and Portugal.
   By the 15th century, however, as humanistically educated Italians were beginning to show interest in the original Greek text of the New Testament, some of them were also attracted to study of the Hebrew Old Testament. Some humanists regarded Hebrew as a third classical language, alongside Greek and Latin. Beginning with Bologna in 1460, a few Italian universties founded professorships of Hebrew, positions often filled by former Jews who had been converted to Christianity. Lorenzo de'Medici, the political leader of Florence, studied Hebrew under a Jewish teacher; and a young Christian scholar, Giovanni Pico della Mirándola, took on the task of mastering the Hebrew language and the religious writings of the Jews, both biblical commentary and the mystical texts known as Cabala.
   As Renaissance learning spread to Northern Europe, interest in Hebrew also grew, though more slowly than interest in Latin and Greek. In the 1490s, the German humanist and lawyer Johann Reuchlin visited Italy, became intrigued by the cabalistic books, and learned Hebrew so that he could adapt Jewish mystical writings to his own Christian faith. His interest in Hebrew language and literature became the target for attack by several conservative theologians and members of religious orders. A bitter and disruptive controversy broke out in the second decade of the 16th century between Reuchlin and his critics, the Dominican friars and the theological faculty of the University of Cologne.
   Nevertheless, during the second decade of the 16th century, pressure to provide regular university instruction in Hebrew and to make mastery of both Greek and Hebrew a standard part of the academic curriculum that prepared students for the study of theology increased. Where the Reformation gained the upper hand, study of Hebrew became mandatory for students of theology. Similar progress in regions that remained Catholic was less general, but by the end of the 16th century, at least some Catholic as well as Protestant theologians were well versed in the Hebrew language, the Hebrew Bible, and some parts of Hebrew exegetical and theological literature.

Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. . 2004.

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