In No Man’s Land


The fifteenth-century Italian philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola loved nothing more than buying books—the costlier and the more outlandish the better. He built up a splendid library in the palace at Mirandola, decorated with a fresco by Cosimo Tura that depicted the Persian sage Zoroaster and the Egyptian Hermes, as well as the Greek and Roman philosophers. And he firmly believed that his collecting was a philosophical enterprise. Since every major thinker offered readers a unique and valid slice of a vast, universal set of truths, each book represented one colorful tile in a magnificent, divinely ordained mosaic.

Whatever their provenance, whatever their content, none of Pico’s books excited him more than the Latin ones provided by his major informant on the Kabbalah and other Jewish subjects, Flavius Mithridates, a learned Jew from Sicily who had become a Christian. These renderings of Hebrew texts previously unknown in the West showed Pico that the Jews had once been—as their “old Talmud” clearly showed—Trinitarians, believers in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They also revealed that the name of Jesus, spelled in Hebrew, formed the secret core of the Kabbalistic tradition. If the Jews of Pico’s time denied the Trinity or the divinity of Jesus, they did so not because they sincerely believed in the integrity of their own tradition, but in order to spite the Christians whose church they knew they should join.

Flavius’s ancient texts sharply spiced the heady mixture of information and exhortation that Pico brewed in his so-called Oration on the Dignity of Man —the speech with which he planned to open a public disputation at Rome, to which he invited all the great scholars of Europe. Sadly, the texts were shaky. Flavius earned his living in a Christian world as an expert on Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic. A sermon that he held in the papal curia on Good Friday, “although it lasted two hours, still pleased everyone, thanks to the variety of its contents and the sound of the Hebrew and Arabic words, which he pronounced like a native.” On that occasion too, Flavius had deftly welded genuine Jewish traditions and the inventions of medieval anti-Jewish polemicists into a form that the Christians wanted to hear.1 Though Pico was a pioneering Greek scholar and a clever student of the ancient Near East, he was completely taken in, and eagerly coughed up every payment Flavius demanded for these texts.2

This story harbors many ironies. When Pico set out to unlock the secrets of Jewish exegesis and tradition, he had to depend on Jewish informants, some of whom, though steeped in genuine Jewish traditions, told him what he wanted to hear. Nonetheless, he helped to spark one of the most radical intellectual movements of a radical age. In the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, many Christian scholars followed Pico’s lead. They decided that they could not master the sacred texts of their own religion, the Old and New Testaments, without taking into account…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.