Classics and Religious Studies, Department of


Date of this Version



Published in Shaping the Bible in the Reformation: Books, Scholars and Their Readers in the Sixteenth Century. Ed. Bruce Gordon and Matthew McLean (Leiden: Brill, 2012), pp. 63–83.


Copyright © 2012 Brill Academic Publishers. Used by permission.


The Rabbinic Bible became a standard reference tool, above all for Protestant Hebraists during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It contained not only the Hebrew Bible text, but also Aramaic-language Targums (periphrastic translations of the biblical text, mostly dating from before 500) and Jewish biblical commentaries written between ca. 1100 and 1500. To use these works required that a Christian Hebraist know not only the language of the Bible, but also Targumic Aramaic and medieval Hebrew, which was rather different from biblical or mishnaic Hebrew. For Christian scholars who mastered these languages and were able to read these different texts, the Rabbinic Bibles offered information and insights from Jewish tradition concerning the linguistic, historical, and exegetical features of particular biblical passages. Sometimes these texts provide greater clarity when a biblical passage was difficult to interpret, but at others both the Targums and the commentators suggested different, often conflicting answers to interpretive puzzles. Whatever answers they did provide, however, the books were written by Jewish authors and intended for Jewish readers. Their comments presupposed that Judaism was the one true religion and at times included critical remarks about Christianity. They could make rather bracing reading for the unwary.

In this essay I will describe the features of the first two editions of the Rabbinic Bible, trace their use by Christian Hebraists of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and consider the use of Jewish Bible commentaries by Christian Hebraists, focusing on Sebastian Münster’s annotations to his famous Hebraica Biblia (1534-1535, 1546). Münster’s annotations are an important witness to his experience as a reader of the Biblia Rabbinica, and they also served as a Latin language digest of information found there for those whose Hebrew was not good enough to read it at first hand. In the final section I will reflect on the significance of the Biblia Rabbinica as a source of Jewish scholarly opinion for Christian scholars, which also exposed them to critical questions from Jewish interlocutors as they read these texts.