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 the scholarship of the Jews who had transmitted and interpreted the Hebrew Bible. Christian scholars began to study Hebrew, usually working with Jewish or convert teachers. They printed editions of the Hebrew Old Testament and its ancient Aramaic translations, the Targums—even if one of them, Cardinal Xi-menes, described the Latin Vulgate text, which formed a central column between the Hebrew and Greek versions of the Old Testament, as resembling Christ, crucified between two thieves. And by doing so they opened and began to explore what the Israeli scholar Moshe Idel has called a “third library,” one as ancient and as precious as the libraries of the Greeks and the Romans—and one both newer and more central to Christian culture than the pagan ones, since it offered new insight into the origins of Christianity itself.

Christian scholars burst into the vast memory palace of the Jews at a time when it was dangerous to do so. Italian communes forced Jews to wear yellow stars; the Catholic kings expelled them from Iberia and southern Italy; and German cities staged ritual murder trials, their central testimony obtained by torture, in which Jews were condemned for killing Christian children to use their blood in the manufacture of matzoh. Powerful figures like Kunigunde, sister of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian, called for the burning of Hebrew books. Converts and Christian experts competed to write ethnographies that exposed the superstitious and magical practices of Jews. Images of Jews whirling chickens around their heads or dropping their sins into running water decorated tracts, and confirmed the Jews’ collective reputation as a people immersed in magic. Only the boldest Christian scholars—above all the man whom Gershom Scholem revered as an imaginary ancestor, the jurist Johannes Reuchlin—actively defended the Jews’ right to keep their traditions, or described them as rich and profound. And even Reuchlin—like Pico—recast the Jewish mysteries he read about in Hebrew commentaries on the Bible to fit Christian needs, and hoped to see all Jews convert in the end to Christianity.3 Still, the opening of the Jewish tradition caused an intellectual earthquake, and the seismic tremors it sent out shook everything from the structures of theological education to the practice of natural philosophy. Isaac Newton was only the most famous of the several influential thinkers who found inspiration in the Kabbalah for their most radical ideas about nature and society.


Two generations ago, few students of European intellectual history paid much attention to the Jews. European scholars—so it seemed—had concentrated their interest and attention on Christian and classical writers and ideas. It was well known that the irascible Luther and other writers more renowned for their tolerance than Luther, like Erasmus and Voltaire, plunged their bent nibs into the Jews as often as they could manage. Others—like Thomas Hobbes and Pierre Bayle—elaborately discussed the Old Testament, usually in contexts where they also seemed to be scoring polemical points off fellow Christians. But Jewish influence on Christian culture and Christian responses to Jewish thought and practice both seemed subjects of local and specialized interest. Only occasionally did a scholar—usually a Jew—pursue what now seem obvious historical questions: for example, why the tolerance of the thinkers of the French Enlightenment slumbered when Jews were persecuted. And even scholars deeply schooled in Jewish learning, like the late Frank Manuel, paid relatively little attention to the intellectual collisions of Jews and Christians.

During the last forty years or so, however, all students of the European past have come to see the Western tradition as far less unified, its borders as far more labile, than they once realized. The study of Jewish history has blossomed. Specialists in the field like Scholem, Moshe Idel, Joseph Dan, Amos Funkenstein, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Josef Kaplan, Elisheva Carlebach, and David Ruderman have found a wide readership among students of European thought—and they, in turn, have realized that European thinkers took a passionate interest in the Kabbalah, the rituals of Jewish worship, and the textual status of the Hebrew Bible. Experts on Christian Europe like Brian Pullan, Natalie Zemon Davis, William Chester Jordan, R. Po-chi Hsia, and Jonathan Israel have turned their attention to Jewish communities and individuals living in the European world. A very few scholars, like the Israeli historian David Katz, know both worlds at first hand.4 Syntheses remain few and incomplete: one of the most stimulating is Frank Manuel’s The Broken Staff, written in the 1980s, when that great historian returned, as an old man, to the Hebrew studies of his youth. But no historian of European culture can now ignore the prominent roles that Jews have played, over the centuries, in both European life and the European imagination. Some of the most exciting recent books in European history—such as David Nirenberg’s Communities of Violence and Miri Rubin’s Gentile Tales—have traced the fault lines that separated Jewish and Christian communities and delicately recorded, from the sources, the shocks created when each community rubbed against the other.

For all the new light that scholars have thrown upon this once dark border region, central questions remain unsolved and obscure. How typical, for example, was Pico’s experience—deep, engaged, passionate, mediated, and sometimes spurious—of Christian contact with and thought about the Jews? How typical was Reuchlin’s more direct immersion in the sources? Did Christians invent imaginary Jews, their hereditary enemies within, as they invented other imaginary enemies, from Turks to cannibals, outside Europe? Or did they learn to see Jews whole? When, if ever, did Jews themselves find a voice within the European world? And what messages did they send to Christians?

Two recent books—both of them passionate, well informed, and eloquent—attack these problems in instructively different ways. Adam Sutcliffe, a pupil of the prolific and erudite historian Jonathan Israel, uses the role of Judaism in Enlightenment thought to develop his teacher’s thesis that the most radical shifts in modern European culture took place in the decades just before and after 1700. His wide-ranging study starts in the seventeenth-century heyday of polymathy, when Christian scholars exhausted themselves trying to establish an absolutely reliable text of the Bible and an absolutely rigorous, coherent approach to world history—achingly difficult enterprises to begin with, and made more so by the dizzying multiplication of new forms of evidence, as information about the Near East, the New World, China, and India filtered back to Europe. New versions of the Bible and new evidence about the antiquity of Eastern societies transmogrified the narrow, orderly mansions of history.


Traditional world chronicles laid out history as a neat sequence of names and dates that started with Adam and ended with the present. But the new accounts of the Americas and China broke time lines, defied traditions, and made the past a bizarre carnival fun-house. Its shocking mirrors dramatically magnified the Egyptian and Chinese traditions, making them look older and more profound than the Jewish one. These debates grew hotter as the seventeenth century wore on—especially, as Sutcliffe shows, when they moved from the studies in which grave and learned scholars wrote Latin folios for a few peers into the journals and coffeehouses of the time. Suddenly, women and Grub Street writers could read about and join in debates that had once been the province of the erudite. Gradually, he argues, the old Bar-oque disciplines like chronology lost their luster, and even their coherence.

Jewish tradition now became the object of sharp questions. Was it the source of all true knowledge about the origins of life, the universe, and everything else, as scholars had traditionally insisted? Or was it a parochial and self-serving body of stories that obscured the older and more vital civilizations whose culture and religion the Jews had rejected? Could the Calvinist thinker Isaac La Peyrère be right when he claimed that the bibli-cal story of Creation described not the origin of the Jews, but that of humanity itself, thousands of years before Jewish history began? Or the Catholic thinker Richard Simon, when he insisted that the Hebrew Scriptures had not been dictated by God, but assembled by fallible humans, long after the events they described? Neither man’s ideas were so novel as modern historians generally believe, as Noel Malcolm has shown in a brilliantly piece of scholarly detective work.5 Yet if earlier divines provided the tools with which La Peyrère and Simon went about their tentative work of demolition, others had declared every word—and every mark of punctuation—in the Bible to be the product of direct divine inspiration. But both men were denounced and their books condemned and rebutted. Yet even their opponents, like Bishop Bossuet, knew that they could no longer maintain with absolute confidence the old simple truths about history and tradition. The search for certainty in scholarship led only to controversy without end, as the vast constructs of the late humanists collapsed like the Old Stone Face.

Yet the failure of Christian Hebraism marked only the beginning of Enlightenment Europe’s engagement with the Jews. Sutcliffe describes a new breed of thinkers—open, revisionist scholars like Jacques Basnage and Pierre Bayle—who subjected the Jews to a new kind of scrutiny. Basnage, who wrote the first large-scale history of the Jews by a European, highlighted at many points the value and interest of Jewish thought—especially that of those almost-Protestant Jews, the Karaites, who rejected tradition and followed only Scripture and reason. Yet Basnage also judged the Jews as a Calvinist, and made clear his hope that all of them would eventually convert.

Bayle, for his part, wittily exposed in his dictionary the immorality of great figures from the Jewish past, like David. He argued more generally that Jewish law was inferior to Christian ethics, since it imposed a single, absolute standard where Christianity schooled the individual conscience. Yet Bayle also praised the morality of Jewish customs—for example, the prohibition against speaking during marital sex that he found in a guide to right conduct for Jewish women; he saw this as an excellent preventive remedy for lust. Judaism somehow remained outside ethics and exemplified it, at one and the same time.

Even as Christian thinkers struggled to define what Judaism meant and should mean to their fellows, Jews—of a sort—found a new voice. In the Sephardi community at Amsterdam, many of whose members had little traditional Jewish education, and all of whom were exposed to cultural influences of the most diverse kinds, Jewish thinkers like Isaac Morteira and Uriel da Costa challenged Jewish orthodoxy. Though their texts too were largely suppressed, they had an impact nonetheless—especially on the young Spinoza. When he, in turn, was expelled from the Jewish community, he developed the most radical of all assaults on biblical authority and tradition. Many of the Dutch had long seen their Calvinist state, created by a long rebellion against Catholic Spain, as a modern Israel. Radical preachers and their followers wanted to dissolve Holland’s republican institutions, since they distrusted the tolerant patricians who ran them and preferred to put their fate in the hands of the godly house of Orange.

In the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Spinoza presented arguments that engaged both with the long arc of Jewish tradition and with the short-term crisis of the Dutch Republic. He argued forcefully that the Bible was addressed to the primitive Jews whose actions it described—and thus could not offer moral rules or natural philosophy to the more sophisticated readers of his own time. That explained why it described impossible events and put forward errors about the physical world. The best chapters of Sutcliffe’s book trace the complex ways in which Spinoza became a hero—perhaps the hero—of the Enlightenment, as radicals summarized, applied, developed, and travestied his ideas, sometimes combining them with strange notions from the Hermetic and other traditions. Throughout the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, critical thinkers fought on to understand, classify, and determine Europeans’ duties toward the Jews.

Throughout the Enlightenment, Sutcliffe concludes, Jews proved a source of trouble and ambiguity. He nicely describes the increasing prominence of actual Jews on the urban scene in Amsterdam, London, and elsewhere, the continued vitality of anti-Jewish stereotypes, and the ambiguities of eighteenth-century thought. Again and again, thinkers acknowledged the virtues of individual Jews, but nonetheless insisted that Jews as a race must drop their peculiar habits and customs if they hoped to join the civilized European world. Over the decades, as the din made by these colliding facts and theories battered the ears of the philosophes, Jews remained impossible to fix in any historical or religious pigeonhole. The Enlightenment’s bequest to later periods was less Voltaire’s harsh anti-Semitic rhetoric than a series of ambiguities, which left unclear both what category the Jews belonged in (race? religion? other?) and how public discourse or politics should treat them.


Like Adam Sutcliffe, Maurice Olender—a product of a Parisian training in classics and intellectual history—sees scholarly traditions as central to the modern fate of the Jews.6 Where Sutcliffe emphasizes seventeenth-century scholars’ efforts to show that the Jews had learned from the Egyptians, Olender highlights the late- eighteenth- and nineteenth-century philological revolution, when scholars discovered Sanskrit and tried to redraw the family tree of nations by creating a history of the world’s languages. The history and relations of languages mattered, in a new way, in this period. Philosophers in France and Germany, among them Montesquieu and Herder, argued that a people’s language expressed—and even shaped—its culture. They systematically compared the Jews, whom the Bible located at the beginnings of world history and whom comparative theology established as the inventors of monotheism, with the Aryans, whom the Bible had omitted, but whom the new kind of comparative philology identified as the ancestors of modern Europeans and the most creative of all the races. From the late eighteenth to the late nineteenth centuries, as Olender convincingly argues, scholars of very different kinds envisioned the histories of Jews and Aryans as the two long backbones of a double helix. Between them, these traditions formed a body of complementary genetic materials that determined nothing less than the course of history itself.

History’s two backbones—so thinkers from Herder onward argued—complemented each other in a neat and symmetrical way. Jews believed in one god, Aryans in many. Jews and other Semites created a stable, sterile, unchanging culture, which lasted over centuries and millennia. Aryans, by contrast, innovated endlessly. Both the imperfect language of the Jews, which lacked inflections and a proper system of tenses, and the perfect one of the Aryans, which had a past and a future tense, expressed (or defined) their cultural and racial abilities. From Herder to Pictet, as Olender eloquently shows, these categories framed and limited scholars’ vision of the past. Occasional exceptions did not tear the tough but delicate screen of myths and prejudices that hung between scholars and sources. Only in the work of Ignaz Goldziher—a nineteenth-century Jew who worked in Hungary and Egypt, trained in but not imprisoned by the categories of modern scholarship—did they meet a full-scale refutation. Even then, the prejudices that had lost ground on the battlefields of philology would regain it in institutes of racial science, concentration camps, and even faculties of theology.

Olender’s book has many virtues. Brief, intense, and often ironic, it rests on a deep foundation of learning. His ability to compress his material into sinuous chapters, concise and packed with material but never overly schematic or simplified, compels admiration. The Languages of Paradise is a little masterpiece of exposition as well as of analysis. One side of Olender’s project is iconoclastic. He challenges one of the founding myths of nineteenth-century thought: the myth of philology itself. According to the standard tale, history lay sleeping for centuries until Herder and his crowd of attendant professors came and released it. No one before the great eighteenth-century innovators, Winckelmann, Heyne, and Herder, had real insight into the otherness of the past, into the sharp differences between one’s own culture and all others. By contrast, the scholars of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, inspired by Herder, shared his sharp historical sense, his ability to detect in language the clues that revealed the development of cultures.

The Languages of Paradise replaces these simple formulas with complex readings of the texts. Olender demonstrates how deeply myth remained lodged in the mental structures of nineteenth-century history. When the mid-nineteenth century’s most influential historian of Judaism and Christianity, Ernest Renan, described the Semites of Jesus’ time as passive, superstitious creatures, unlike the more Hellenized and Westernized inhabitants of the Galilee, he was not recording history as it had been but imposing a retrospective construction on the sources. The Galileans who populated Renan’s Life of Jesus were historical straw men, imaginary figures. So, more generally, were the gifted, mercurial, and witty Aryans whom the sober scientists of the past conjured up (and who, in Renan’s vision, bizarrely included Jesus himself).

At a more basic level still, the project of historicism, which claimed to read cultures in their own terms, turned itself, as well as the past, into myth. Herder and Renan insisted that each culture had a particular nature, as independent of all others as a Leibnizian monad. Nonetheless, their belief in a providential and progressive order led them, time and again, to make qualitative judgments about the peoples and cultures of the past. They compared languages and literatures, arranging them in a hierarchical order that proved the upward movement of humanity—upward and away from the Jews. Historical analysis blended imperceptibly into comparative taxonomy. Historicism, which had been open to consideration of different traditions, suddenly metamorphosed into a philosophy of history as severe and stereotyped as those of the eighteenth-century philosophes; scholarship embodied rac- ist notions and lived on in racist theories. Yet the heroes of nineteenth-century philology, the scholars who explored and criticized the textual sources of Christian belief, and who found the fault lines in every chronicle, did not recognize the contradictions that lay at the heart of their enterprise.

Olender, however, does not simply seek to expose the failings of the nineteenth century. He shows an ironic affection for the swelling richness of his subjects’ language—the uncontrollable profusion of metaphors and images which gave their accounts of Semites and Aryans depth and drama. He appreciates, rather than deprecates, their immediate response, so characteristic of their period, to landscape and local color: the ease with which they found the inspiration for Jehovah in a thunderstorm or recognized Mary Magdalene in a modern Arab woman glimpsed at a well.

In the end Olender’s intellectual sympathy obviously lies with Goldziher, who insisted on the permeability of racial and cultural borders and on the primacy of concrete evidence over abstract schemes. But all his actors have fully developed characters, and all of them are treated seriously and with respect. In his refusal to imprison past scholars in the iron cages of simple, coherent formulas, in his careful tracing of their self-contradictions, self-betrayals, and self-transcendences, Olender shows that he himself is something of a nineteenth-century novelist. His book makes an instructive contrast to the banal simplicities of much modern historiography, and provides a model of historical analysis that does justice to the form, as well as the content, of complex intellectual systems. Like Sutcliffe, he shows that the history of scholarship is not only densely technical but richly human.

Both of these books help us to see how Western intellectuals have imagined the Jews who lived among them. Both help us also to understand why the same categories—and the same ambiguities—framed Western understandings of other non-Western peoples, like those of the Middle East. Sutcliffe and Olender make clear that Edward Said, in Orientalism, described not a unique construct but one among many templates through which Western writers viewed, and with which they tried to describe, non-Western cultures and peoples.7

Yet the history of European views of Judaism in the early modern period is even more complex than these excellent books suggest. Sutcliffe and Olender both write as if early modern intellectuals envisioned the Jewish tradition as simple and uniform—a world of Jews who lived in similar communities, followed similar laws, and used the Hebrew language for divine service and biblical study. In fact, however, the Christian Hebraists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries knew perfectly well that this was not true. As early as the 1580s, Joseph Scaliger argued that the “Hellenists” mentioned in the New Testament Acts of the Apostles were not simply Jews who lived in the Greek and Roman lands of the Roman Empire, but Jews “who read the Bible in Greek in their Synagogues.” Paul and the New Testament evangelists cited the Bible in Greek because they were addressing, for the most part, Hellenized Jews.

As evidence for this revisionist thesis Scaliger cited a Jewish writer whom Christians had traditionally treated with respect: Philo, the Alexandrian philosopher who lived between approximately 20 BCE and 50 CE. He and his fellows were devout Jews, as committed as anyone to orthodox practice. They worshiped in a synagogue at Alexandria that rivaled the Temple in Jerusalem for scale and splendor. Philo and the other Hellenists pursued a form of Judaism distinct in language and in other respects from that of Palestine. On the other hand, though ignorant of Hebrew, they knew far more than contemporary Hebrew speakers about the history and culture of the wider world the Jews inhabited.8

In the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when Christian scholars discovered the existence of a Hellenistic phase in Jewish history, the Jews—or at least one learned Jew—did the same. Azariah de’ Rossi, a Ferrarese Jew, produced an immense treatise entitled The Light of the Eyes, in which he systematically compared Jewish, Christian, and classical traditions about the past. He and other Jewish scholars, like David Provenzali, read Philo, whom Azariah called “Yedi-dyah the Alexandrian.” Azariah was disturbed and fascinated by his encounter with a Jewish writer whose works were published and translated by Christian scholars. Like Scaliger, he recognized that Philo, though he “had expert knowledge of Greek and expressed himself fluently and lucidly in the language,” “never saw nor knew the original text of Torah.” He responded with a complex mixture of admiration and repulsion to the discovery of ancient Egyptian Jews who could articulate “beautiful” allegories on the Scripture, but could not read it in the original: “I cannot pass an immediate and absolute verdict on him.”9 Many Christians read Azariah, in turn, and found rich material to add to Scaliger’s insights into the culture of the Hellenists.

In the course of the seventeenth century, scholars developed and sharpened these analyses. Scaliger suggested that one could find in the Talmud, the great Jewish compilation of legal codes and commentaries, parallels to many of Jesus’ commandments. He even used the Passover Haggadah to reconstruct the full Last Supper, as Jesus had conducted it. The account given in the Gospels, Scaliger argued, described only the segments of the ritual that deviated from normal Jewish practice. Only a historical reconstruction—one that pieced together the original event by setting the Gospel accounts into their Jewish context—could reveal what actually happened at the Messiah’s table. Scaliger’s pupil Daniel Heinsius argued that the Jews had created a Greek dialect or language of their own, a “Hellenistic language,” in which Greek words bore new, Semitic meanings. Sarx, for example, the medical term for “flesh” in classical Greek, corresponded in the Hellenistic language to the Hebrew term basar, which could bear a much wider sense, as in the biblical phrase “all flesh.”10

Heinsius held that one could understand the New Testament only by learning the particular Jewish Greek in which it had been written. Others—especially his great enemy, Claude Saumaise—denounced these ideas, and argued that the Hellenists had had no special language. The Greek of the New Testament revealed unusual, Semitic usage because the texts had been translated from Hebrew and Aramaic originals. And the Hellenists, Saumaise insisted, had had no great synagogue of their own in Alexandria or elsewhere.

The learned controversy about the language of the Hellenists would go on for centuries, until much later scholars reconstructed the history of the koine dialect of Greek that Jews and non-Jews alike spoke in the years of Christ’s life. But throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, one point remained clear. No learned man could imagine that all Jews, in antiquity or later, had spoken the same language, read the same version of their holy books, or used the same liturgy. Some even speculated on the ways in which the special Judaism of the Hellenists had inflected the language and thought of the early Christians. The crisis of Christian humanism was not so sudden and total as Sutcliffe argues, and the stereotypes of Jews and their language not so confining as Olender suggests.

The authors of these short, packed, and cogent books deserve praise and attention on many counts. They have illuminated lost worlds of passionate and engaged discussion, demonstrated the central part that Judaism played in Christians’ efforts at self-definition, and teased out the ambiguities of Enlightenment and historicism. Not least of all, they have shown how much we still don’t know about the no man’s land in which learned Jewish and Christian armies struggled, over the centuries, by night.

This Issue

February 26, 2004