Classics and Religious Studies, Department of


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Published in Sonderdruck aus Hebrew Bible / Old Testament: The History of Its Interpretation. VOLUME II: From the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, edited by Magne Sæbø (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2008), pp. 785-801.


Christian Hebrew scholarship as an academic discipline was born during the sixteenth century. The founding of chairs of Hebrew language at European universities, the emergence of Hebrew presses to supply the needs of Christian customers, the willingness of some Jewish experts to instruct Christian pupils, and above all the humanist motivation for a return to the sources of the Christian faith together made Hebrew education possible for greater numbers of Christian scholars than ever before. The majority of these scholars had only a smattering of Hebrew, and those such as Conrad Pellican, and Paul Fagius who could read and understand the Targums and medieval Jewish Bible commentaries were relatively rare. The second edition of the Biblia rabbinica of Bomberg, Mikra'ot gedolot (1524-25), contained enough texts and aids to more than meet the needs of most Christian Hebraists, and parts of it such as the Masorah remained a closed book to them.

Over the next two centuries, several remarkable Hebraists developed the conceptual tools to evaluate the received Hebrew Bible text both as a document with a transmission history and a text whose language could also be evaluated in light of other Semitic languages. The two Buxtorfs, father and son, provided the intellectual foundation for these developments by producing scholarly aids in the form of grammars and dictionaries of Hebrew of far higher quality than had been available previously, and above all by publishing a Latin language manual to introduce Christian students to the intricacies of the Masorah. Thanks to his exposure to Arabic, Louis Cappel could conceive of a Semitic language that did not require vowel points to be read and understood. By the end of his career Cappel provided trenchant arguments demonstrating that the paratextual elements of the masoretic text (including its vocalization) could not have been written by the original biblical authors, and therefore only the consonantal text was canonical. Albert Schultens, also a student of Arabic, revolutionized the practice of comparing Hebrew with other Semitic languages by proposing that Hebrew and Arabic were "twin sister" languages, both descendents of the primordial language. By the end of the eighteenth century, Benjamin Kennicott and Giovanni de Rossi would explore the Hebrew Bible manuscript tradition through Europe-wide surveys of biblical manuscripts and by publishing summaries of textual variations present in over a thousand manuscripts and printed Hebrew Bibles. These philological breakthroughs when taken together resulted in the birth of both textual criticism and comparative philology as sub disciplines of biblical studies.

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