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The similarities between Jewish and Christian biblical commentaries

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Rembrandt’s painting 'Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem'

Jewish life in Europe in the Middle Ages was often precarious. Medieval Jews were expelled from England, France, Spain and Portugal. They were forced to participate in public disputations that were usually rigged – they had to defend Judaism without being accused of blasphemy against Christian doctrines. They were accused of and punished for such fabricated crimes as ritual murder and host desecration. Crusaders on their way to the Holy Land to kill Muslim “infidels” often practised on Jewish infidels along the way, decimating a number of Jewish communities.

But on a day-to-day basis, Jews, the only tolerated minority in medieval Christendom, had many rights, including the right of self-government.  In recent generations scholars, have also highlighted the intellectual connections between medieval Jews and Christians, especially in the area of Bible commentary.

While Jews and Christians had written Bible commentaries before this, the 11th and 12th centuries were a particularly productive time for commentators from both religions.  The works of Rashi (1040-1105), his grandson Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam; c. 1080-c. 1160), and Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1167) are classics still studied by Jews all over the world. Rashi is in a category by himself in Jewish consciousness, unrivalled by any commentator before or since.

The Christian world also produced crucial and innovative Bible commentaries in the very same years and in the very same country, France.  Rashi and Rashbam were born and lived in France; Rabbi ibn Ezra moved there later in life and produced many Bible commentaries there. Christians affiliated with the Abbey of St. Victor, a kind of monastery-university on the outskirts of Paris, produced path-breaking Bible commentaries. The most famous of these Christians were Hugh of St. Victor (c. 1096-1141) and Andrew of St. Victor (d. 1175).

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For almost a century, modern scholars have noticed the similarities between the Hebrew Bible commentaries of Rashi, Rashbam and Rabbi ibn Ezra, on the one hand, and the Latin Bible commentaries of the Victorines, on the other.  All had a surprising interest in the plain, contextual meaning of the biblical text, what the Jews called peshat, at times even when such interpretations went against commentaries written by their venerated predecessors.

In a carefully researched scholarly book on this subject, In Hebreo: The Victorine Exegesis of the Bible in the Light of its Northern French Jewish Sources, Montse Leyra-Curia has advanced our understanding of the relationship between these Jewish and Christian works. Leyra-Curia is an accomplished scholar of Latin texts who spent many years in Israel mastering the Hebrew language and studying Jewish Bible commentators.  This has enabled her to make meticulous comparisons between the Latin commentaries of the Victorines and the Hebrew commentaries of Rashi and others.

Although Hugh and Andrew never mention any living Jewish writer by name, in their Bible commentaries they frequently refer to what the “Iudei” (Jews) or the “Hebrei” (Hebrews) say about a biblical verse.  Sometimes they record the common Christian interpretation and then correct it, saying that the text “in hebreo” (in Hebrew) really means something else.   

Leyra-Curia considers how this information came to Hugh and Andrew.  She does not believe their Hebrew was good enough either for them to have their own independent understanding of the biblical Hebrew text, or for them to read and understand the Bible commentaries of Rashi, Rashbam and others.  (Hugh and Andrew do occasionally make independent comments about a Hebrew word, but these reflect a shaky understanding of the Hebrew.) Did they learn what Jews said about the Bible by reading the works of other Christians? Sometimes, she concludes.  But most of their references are to Jewish interpretations that first appeared in the 11th and 12th centuries. These appear in Christian works for the first time in the writings of the Victorines.

Leyra-Curia reasonably concludes that Christians like Hugh and Andrew talked about the meaning of biblical verses with living Jews in Northern France.

Which Jews? Leyra-Curia carefully reviews the similarities between “Jewish” interpretations that Hugh and Andrew quote on the one hand and the actual writings of their Jewish contemporaries on the other. She finds that Hugh and Andrew cite or agree with interpretations found in Rashbam’s Torah commentary more often than with those found in any other Jewish Bible commentary.  She concludes: “There is a high probability that Rashbam himself taught . . .  interpretations to Hugh or to both Victorines.”

From his own writings, she adds, we know that Rashbam spent time in Paris. He also occasionally refers to conversations he had with Christians who, he claims, “admitted” that what he said made sense.  Interestingly, Rashbam used this same term when describing the conversations about Bible interpretation that he had with his grandfather, Rashi. According to Rashbam, Rashi “admitted” to Rashbam that if he only had time he would have rewritten his Bible commentary, taking into account new insights into the meaning of the Bible.

Leyra-Curia’s findings may not be dramatic, but in 400 pages of meticulous scholarship, she builds a strong case that Rashbam “talked Torah” with Christian clergy. Presumably he was not the only Jew to do so. We now know that even in the 12th century, just after the horrible devastation inflicted by the First Crusade on Franco-German Jewry, some Jews and Christians were still able to meet and discuss the meaning of biblical verses, not in a disputation, but in a co-operative attempt to better understand God’s words.

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