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The Unlikely Key

“I have always loved the Holy Tongue”: Isaac Casaubon, the Jews, and a Forgotten Chapter in Renaissance Scholarship
By Anthony Grafton and Joanna Weinberg
(Belknap Press, 380 pp., $35)

In March 1629, the lawyer and parliamentarian John Selden found himself in the Tower of London without any books to keep him company. England’s greatest man of letters, Selden had been arrested on orders from Charles I for denying the king’s authority to adjourn the House of Commons. Four months later Charles relaxed the terms of Selden’s confinement, allowing him to designate a small number of books to keep with him in his cell—his “desert island” books. Perhaps he would select the Bible or the church fathers; Aristotle or Cicero; Homer or Virgil. But he chose none of these. In a written reply to his jailors, he announced that he most urgently required his copies of the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds.

This fact is bound to strike us as more than slightly mysterious. After all, Jews in Selden’s England were roundly despised—or rather their ghosts were, since the Jews themselves had been expelled in 1290 and would not be allowed to return for several decades yet. How can we explain the fact that a seventeenth-century Protestant scholar such as Selden would have elected to spend his prison term studying the rabbis? To pose this question is to set out in search of a long-forgotten chapter in Western intellectual history, one in which the study of Hebrew became an obsession of the European republic of letters.

The story begins in the Italian Renaissance, as humanists such as Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Marsilio Ficino turned to the study of Kabbalah (the Jewish mystical tradition) in the hope of uncovering the secret structure of a prisca theologia—an ancient tectonic theology that was believed to underlie all of the great religious systems of the world, pagan, Jewish, and Christian. But it was the Protestant Reformation that transformed Christian Hebraism from an eccentric preoccupation of the esoterically inclined into a truly dominant cultural and intellectual phenomenon. Luther’s clarion call of sola scriptura—“only the Scriptures”—made the study of the Bible a Christian duty and led Protestants back to the original texts of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. The fundamental program of the Reformers thus came to depend on a revival of the Hebrew language: professorships of Hebrew were established in all of the great Protestant universities, and the first occupants of these chairs were called upon to satisfy a prodigious public appetite for Hebrew grammars and dictionaries, as well as for printed editions of the Hebrew Bible itself.

And here the story takes a crucial and unexpected turn. This new generation of Protestant Hebraists did not simply confine themselves to the study of the original Biblical text, as one might have predicted. Instead they became devoted students of rabbinic literature. Their contemporaries fully recognized the novelty and the significance of this development. It was one thing for Christian theologians to learn Hebrew in order to illuminate the teachings of the Old Testament, which was, after all, a part of the Christian Bible: although this practice may have fallen into relative disrepute during the previous millennium of Christian history, it was well attested among the early fathers of the church, and never entirely died out. But the rabbis were quite another matter. Early-modern Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, tended to regard them as theologically befuddled apologists for deicide. Why on earth would a Christian Hebraist have any business studying such authors?

The first answer to this question was philological. The rabbis, for all their perceived defects, had possessed a comprehensive command of the Hebrew language and had left behind numerous aids to the proper understanding of the Biblical text, in the form of commentaries and Aramaic paraphrases of the Hebrew Bible. The second answer was ecclesiological: the rabbis of the Talmud had transmitted extensive and detailed accounts of Jewish religious practice during the lifetime of Jesus that could be used to resolve longstanding disputes within Christendom about the structure and character of the primitive church. And, lastly, there was a political answer. Protestant theorists came to see in the Hebrew Bible a political constitution that God himself had designed for his chosen nation before it fell from grace. The institutions and the practices of this “Hebrew republic” were therefore understood to be of continuing authority for Christians, and it was generally believed that one could not hope to understand or to replicate them without the assistance of the rabbis.

For all these reasons, the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries witnessed an unprecedented explosion of Christian interest in the full range of surviving Hebraica. By the end of this period, the kabbalistic work known as the Zohar, the Aramaic targums (rabbinic paraphrases of the Biblical text), numerous midrashic works, and fifteen tractates of the Talmud had been translated into Latin, along with the major works of Maimonides, David Kimhi, Abraham Ibn Ezra, Gersonides, Isaac Abravanel, Judah Halevi, and others. Alongside these translations and editions, Protestant theorists published more than one hundred studies of the “Hebrew republic,” thereby establishing the most dominant genre of Reformed political writing in the early-modern period.

Indeed, the rise of Hebraism and the study of rabbinics came to distinguish the intellectual life of the Protestant world very sharply from that of Catholic Europe. Even as Protestants were becoming increasingly convinced that one could not hope to interpret the Scriptures correctly without having engaged in extensive Hebrew study, the Council of Trent (1545-1563) decreed in contrast that the Vulgate Latin was the authoritative Bible, and that no biblical scholarship based on the original Hebrew and Greek text was relevant from the point of view of church dogma or practice. And while Protestants were frantically imbibing the minutiae of the rabbinic corpus, the Roman Inquisition ordered the Talmud to be publicly burnt in 1553, and the Sisto-Clementine Index of 1596 banned even those editions of the Talmud that had been purged of “calumnies against Christianity” by the censors. (Beginning in 1557, the Inquisition forbade even Jews from owning any Hebrew books other than the Bible itself.) As the great religious crisis of the sixteenth century unfolded, the alliance between Hebraism and Reformation became unmistakable.


Modern scholars have been aware of the broad contours of this story since at least the end of the nineteenth century, but it is only in recent decades that intellectual and cultural historians have begun to take its full measure. Valuable studies of Renaissance Hebraism have proliferated, as have sophisticated treatments of English, Dutch, and German Hebraism in the seventeenth century. But in their splendid new book, Anthony Grafton and Joanna Weinberg direct our attention to a figure whose name is virtually absent from all of the earlier accounts: Isaac Casaubon, the great Huguenot scholar, who lived from 1559 to 1614.

Most readers, alas, will associate this extraordinary early-modern polymath with his gloomy namesake in George Eliot’s Middlemarch—the desiccated, authoritarian pedant who spends his life accumulating arcana for a mammoth Key to All Mythologies that never materializes. Eliot’s heroine Dorothea, awed by the trappings of erudition, foolishly agrees to marry Mr. Casaubon, only to realize later that “such capacity of thought and feeling as had ever been stimulated in him by the general life of mankind had long shrunk to a sort of dried preparation, a lifeless embalmment of knowledge.” This picture of Casaubon as a failed systematizer of abstruse data, numb to the attractions of human sociability, received perhaps its most important boost, in 1875, from Mark Pattison’s biography. Pattison famously latched onto a detail from Casaubon’s autopsy in order to epitomize his subject. When the physician Theodore Turquet de Mayerne examined the great man’s corpse, he found that Casaubon had suffered from a malformation of the bladder, one that “was congenital, but had been aggravated by sedentary habits, and inattention to the calls of nature, while the mind of the student was absorbed in study and meditation.”

Neglected bladder aside, Grafton and Weinberg rightly insist that this venerable picture of Casaubon will not do. To begin with, Casaubon was no sad repository of useless erudition. He was a prodigiously accomplished philologist whose labors helped to establish a solid textual basis for the study of numerous classical authors, including Theophrastus, Diogenes Laërtius, Strabo, Suetonius, and Persius—and whose eagle eye for inconsistency exposed several revered ancient texts as pious frauds, most notably the so-called Hermetic Corpus, a mystical Greek composition believed to have been transmitted from ancient Egypt. Nor was Casaubon anything like the closeted ascetic conjured by Eliot. He managed to father no fewer than seventeen children with a wife he dearly loved, and was reputed to have written several of his works while rocking his various progeny to sleep.

It also emerges that Casaubon possessed the gift of friendship in full measure. Grafton and Weinberg sparkle as they recreate for us a world in which great scholars formed passionate lifelong attachments to colleagues they would never meet. Through the medium of letters sent and faithfully answered across decades, Casaubon came to know and love such eminences as Joseph Scaliger, perhaps the greatest European scholar of the age (and a figure about whom Grafton has written with unmatched skill), as well as less accomplished men to whom he was unfailingly loyal. So Casaubon’s may well have been an itinerant and bookish life, but it was a richly human one as well.

This is certainly a welcome resuscitation of Casaubon, but what is it doing in a book about Christian Hebraism? On the surface at least, it appears that for all his acknowledged philological virtuosity, Casaubon did not engage seriously with the Hebrew revival. He did not do any of the things that Christian Hebraists are supposed to have done. He produced no Hebrew grammar or dictionary, no translation of a Hebrew or Aramaic text into Latin, no study of the Hebrew republic, no foray into the wilds of kabbalism. His published works consist instead of learned classical editions and commentaries, a fine Latin translation of the Greek historian Polybius, a study of ancient satire, and a monumental diatribe against Cardinal Cesare Baronio’s even more monumental history of the early church. This does not look at all like the curriculum vitae of an accomplished Hebraist. Yet Grafton and Weinberg demonstrate beyond doubt that the Hebrew revival played a crucial role in Casaubon’s intellectual formation and animated a surprising number of his scholarly pursuits.

The solution to the riddle emerges when we focus not on the texts of Casaubon’s published work, but rather on his immense correspondence, his diaries and notebooks, and, most revealingly, on the extensive annotations he left behind in virtually all of the books that were important to him. Taken together, these ephemera reveal a dedicated student of the “Holy Tongue” who deployed evidence from an unexpectedly rich array of rabbinic sources in order to illuminate the scholarly controversies of his time.

Casaubon apparently resolved to master the Hebrew language as early as 1592. He promptly began acquiring Hebrew grammars and other study aids, and proceeded to take advanced instruction from the Hebraist Pierre Chevalier, whose untimely death came as a great personal blow. He learned to write Hebrew in a steady and elegant hand, and—as we know from a series of remarkable letters that survive in the collection of the British Library—he became strikingly adept at imitating the unique biblicizing cadence of early-modern Hebrew prose. Later he turned his attention to the study of Aramaic (“Chaldean,” as it was known among Christians of the period), Syriac (a dialect of the same language written in a different script), and Arabic as well.

Casaubon also became an avid collector of Hebrew books and manuscripts, eagerly soliciting copies of important rabbinic texts from a range of colleagues and friends. The collection itself was broken up after his death, but Grafton and Weinberg perform the invaluable service of reconstructing it based on references to Hebrew and Aramaic texts in Casaubon’s correspondence and published works, as well as a census of books in various European and American libraries that feature marginalia or annotations in his hand. These include texts by virtually every important contemporary Hebraist, as well as a variety of Hebrew and Aramaic lexica, grammars, rabbinic Bibles, commentaries, and translations.

Casaubon seems to have been attracted to these materials for two reasons. The first was purely scholarly. The philologist in Casaubon was entranced by the structure of the Hebrew language and deeply curious about the array of ancient texts that his fellow scholars had now made available to the wider republic of letters. He studied these texts exactly as he scrutinized the corpus of Greek literature—with an unerring eye for detail and a zealous commitment to the truth, however inconvenient from the point of view of contemporary pieties.

Grafton and Weinberg offer the fascinating example of Casaubon’s encounter with an important early-modern compendium of rabbinic materials, the Franciscan Pietro Galatino’s De arcanis Catholicae veritatis, first published in 1518. Galatino had more or less pillaged an earlier work by the Dominican Ramon Martí, the Pugio Fidei, or Dagger of Faith, of 1278, in order to make the case that the earliest rabbis had acknowledged Christ and the central doctrines of the Church—unlike their latter-day successors, who had vainly attempted to disguise the true, proto-Christian character of ancient Judaism. This was, as one might imagine, a deeply attractive argument for European Christians, but Casaubon had no patience for it. In his annotations to Galatino, he began by branding the Franciscan as a plagiarist and then proceeded to question one of his most important textual authorities. Galatino had referred to a rabbinic sage called “Rabbenu Hakkados,” Our Holy Rabbi, who had allegedly lived before the time of Jesus, and had obligingly prophesied the Virgin birth, the crucifixion, and even the later recovery of the “True Cross” in meticulous detail. This sage, Galatino enthused, “was rightly called the holy teacher, since with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit he opened up all the mysteries of our lord Jesus Christ.” For Casaubon, all this was far too good to be true. “Rubbish, rubbish, rubbish,” he wrote in the margin. How could it be that an obscure rabbi had managed to prophesy so many crucial events in early Christian history with such precision when no divinely inspired Hebrew prophet, surviving rabbinic authority, or apostle had done likewise?

“Rabbenu Hakkados” reminded Casaubon of another reputable text with which he was tangling at the very same moment—the aforementioned “works of [Hermes] Trismegistus,” the Hermetic Corpus. In that revered text, which Casaubon was about to expose as a forgery, the Hellenistic writer poses as an ancient Egyptian prophet who has miraculously anticipated all of the doctrines of Christian neo-Platonism. Citing the obviously late style of the Greek text, and insisting that God’s true prophets always speak through a veil of allegory and obscurity, he concluded that “Hermes” was nothing more than devious contrivance—a dolus bonus, or “permissible deceit,” of the sort associated with Jesuit casuistry, designed to defend the church through lies. “I will believe that [Hermes’s works] come from that very ancient Egyptian,” he declared, “on the day when I begin divorce proceedings from the art of criticism.”

For precisely the same reasons, he flatly denied the bona fides of Galatino’s precociously Christian faux rabbi. Although modern scholars tend to remember only Casaubon’s demolition of Hermes, his assault on “Rabbenu Hakkados” was equally shrewd and prescient. Galatino, it turns out, was getting his references out of a text known as the Galerazaya, or “Revealer of Secrets,” which relies in turn on a Latin letter attributed to the firstcentury rabbi Nehuniah ben ha’Kanah, now known to be a forgery. Its creator, the fifteenth-century converso Paulus de Heredia, used the honorific “Rabbenu ha-Kaddosh”—reserved in the Talmud for Judah ha’Nasi, who redacted the Mishnah around 200 C.E.—to designate his fictionalized porte-parole and had him “predict” the various Christian mysteries. In mounting his assault on this cynical concoction, Casaubon was anticipating by more than three centuries the pioneering scholarship of Gershom Scholem.

With his philologist’s hat on, Casaubon likewise intervened in several other debates about the authenticity of purportedly ancient Jewish texts. He joined his friend Scaliger in insisting that the Josippon, a Hebrew chronicle thought to have been written by the first-century Jewish historian Josephus (but actually written by a tenth-century Jew from southern Italy), was spurious, and he likewise echoed the Lutheran Lucas Osiander in denouncing the famous Testimonium Flavianum—a passage present in manuscripts of Josephus’s Jewish Antiquities that piously narrates Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. The fact that no such passage appears in the Josippon was taken by contemporaries to be straightforward evidence of Jewish skullduggery: the Jews had managed to excise this crucial early testimony of the truth of Christianity from the Hebrew chronicle, but they had failed to finish the job by sanitizing Josephus’s Greek. Casaubon, by contrast, saw no evidence at all of “the perfidy of the Jews” in this case. If Josephus had actually believed in the resurrection, he fumed, he would have become a Christian! Yet Josephus remained a Jew. The passage in the Jewish Antiquities was therefore an obvious fake—an interpolation inserted by later Christian scribes in a fit of excessive zeal. Casaubon the scholar simply wished to get these texts right, even if doing so meant depriving Christian polemicists of some useful ammunition.

Still, Grafton and Weinberg establish that Casaubon’s drive to master Hebraica was about far more than pure scholarship. In 1612, his patron James I of England commissioned him to compose a refutation of Cardinal Cesare Baronio’s twelve-volume Annales ecclesiastici, one of the most significant defenses of the Catholic Church to emerge out of the Counter-Reformation. Casaubon died before completing the work, but his critique of Book I of Baronio’s opus appeared as an eight-hundred-page folio, the Exercitationes, in 1614. Here Casaubon writes not as a disinterested philologist, but as a polemical warrior for the Reformation, and in particular as an advocate for the Church of England, which struck him as perhaps the best of the many Protestant settlements. In this context, he mustered the fruits of his Hebraic studies primarily in order to embarrass his opponent: Baronio had lacked familiarity with Hebrew sources and glaringly neglected them in formulating his account of the early church. Casaubon complained (with some justification) that without extensive Hebrew and Aramaic study and detailed attention to the writings of the rabbis, one could not pretend to evaluate discrepancies in the Gospels as to the timing of the last supper and the crucifixion, reconstruct the manner in which Jesus was buried, or understand why the Gospel of Luke records that two high priests, Annas and Kaiaphas, held the office simultaneously. Baronio had no such training, and he was therefore to be dismissed as a bumbler and a fraud.

Yet the results of this seemingly endless exposé, as Grafton and Weinberg frankly concede, are underwhelming. Despite having deployed virtually the entire arsenal of his vast erudition, Casaubon scores surprisingly few direct hits against Baronio when it comes to the crucial doctrinal and ecclesiological questions at issue in the conflict between Catholics and Protestants. One exception is his discussion of the famous verse in the Gospel of Matthew: “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church.” This passage was understood by Catholics to establish the papacy’s claim to apostolic succession and was universally read alongside Isaiah 51:1: “Look unto the rock whence ye were hewn.” Taking aim at Baronio once more, Casaubon adduced Maimonides to establish that the metaphor “is not meant to express domination, but to indicate the origin of things and the cause of their existence”—in other words, Peter may have been the founder of the church, but neither he nor his alleged successors ought to be regarded as its master.

This was indeed to take aim at a central tenet of the Catholic faith, but Casaubon was hardly the first to have made the argument. As a general matter, it seems difficult to resist the conclusion that Casaubon, in this great polemic, lost the forest for the trees. Indeed, after having read the Exercitationes, even his good friend Lancelot Andrewes implored him not to “spend so much time on those chronological details. Get on to the more important points, the ecclesiastical matters that are worthy of you, quickly.”

Grafton and Weinberg amply demonstrate that Casaubon’s Hebrew studies should be given pride of place in his intellectual biography—and that this fact reveals something important not only about Casaubon himself, but also about the phenomenon of Christian Hebraism more broadly. We will go very far astray, they rightly insist, if we suppose that Hebraism was merely a small, eccentric province of the late Renaissance intellectual world, isolated from the more familiar terrain of the classical revival and the rise of textual criticism. Casaubon was not a professor of Hebrew, nor did he produce works of Hebrew scholarship, but like so many of his contemporaries he came to regard the study of Hebrew as an organic part of his scholarly enterprise. In his view, the recovery of antiquity and the reconstruction of the primitive church depended on the study of Hebrew as well as Greek and Latin texts. Casaubon and his colleagues did not regard Hebraism as a “separate” or idiosyncratic pursuit, but as basic to the grand project of the Renaissance. It follows that today’s scholars cannot hope to understand early-modern European intellectual history without taking seriously the Hebrew revival.


Yet so far Casaubon appears in this story as a representative figure, not a remarkable one. To be sure, he pursued his Hebrew studies with great diligence, but Grafton and Weinberg are admirably candid about his limitations in this respect. He never mastered the range of texts that the great Hebraists of the age managed to master; he made frequent mistakes; his philological conclusions about the Josippon and the Testimonium Flavianum had been anticipated by other scholars; and his late attempt at learned denominational polemic was not exactly a triumph. Casaubon, in other words, may well teach us something important about Christian Hebraism, but is there any sense in which he stands out as a notable figure within it? It turns out that the answer to this question is affirmative, but not for the reasons one might expect. Casaubon deserves a special place in the story of the Hebrew revival not because of the quality of his engagement with Jewish texts, but because of his uniquely humane attitude toward the Jews themselves.

This aspect of Casaubon’s character emerges most poignantly from his role in the tragic affair of Jacob Barnet. The son of a wealthy Italian Jewish family, Barnet arrived in England in 1610 and immediately attracted the attention of the country’s leading Hebraists. They found in this Jewish scholar an ideal teacher: charming, urbane, fluent in Latin, and by all accounts a prodigy in the study of Talmud. Casaubon first made Barnet’s acquaintance on a visit to Oxford in 1613, and it seems that a genuine friendship soon developed between the two men. They studied together intensively, in Oxford and at Casaubon’s home in London, which Barnet visited at least twice. For Casaubon, Barnet was “my rabbi.”

But a cloud soon descended over this budding partnership. Barnet found himself under intense pressure from his Oxford patrons to convert to Christianity, and, after demurring for as long as possible, he finally relented, declaring that “the veile was now removed from his eyes.” The prospect of this high-profile conversion drew the enthusiastic notice of the king himself, as well as other grandees of the realm, and it was decided that Barnet would be baptized publicly in the University Church of St. Mary. On the day before the ceremony, however, Barnet balked and fled the city. He was apprehended and confined to Bocardo, the university prison, where he awaited his fate—public burning, if his opponents had their way.

It was at this point that Casaubon wrote to the Oxford authorities on Barnet’s behalf, imploring them to release him. The letter in question certainly has its share of what Grafton and Weinberg call “conventional anti-Semitism”—Barnet is described as the “obstinate Jew”—but it is remarkable all the same. Casaubon pleads for Barnet in the name of the “love of letters” and declares that he will “put off all shame” in begging for the life of “that man, whom it was my lot to have as a teacher.” In a second letter he went even further, insisting that, however unfortunate the incident, “the fact that [Barnet] did not wish to become a Christian is not, in my view, a crime punishable by law.” In the end, Casaubon’s pleas reached the ears of the Privy Council, which agreed to Barnet’s release and deportation. He likely saved the man’s life.

Even more extraordinary in some ways was Casaubon’s affection for Jewish liturgy. He owned copies of three different Hebrew prayer books, one Ashkenazic and the other two Sephardic. He was especially taken with the confessional prayer, or viddui, that is central to the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. His annotations show that he lingered over a particular passage: “My God, before I was formed, I was of no worth, and now that I have been formed it is as though I had not been formed. I am dust in my life, how much more so in my death. Behold, I am before You like a vessel full of shame and reproach.” Casaubon, with evident approval, translated the phrase “full of shame and reproach” into Latin in the margin. The Calvinist resonance of the text is clear, but not too many seventeenth-century Calvinists would have dreamed of engaging with it in this manner—nor would they have written of the central penitential prayer known as ashamnu (“We have sinned”) that it was a “remarkable confession.” Casaubon’s openness to these sources was utterly unconventional.

While he certainly made his share of dismissive remarks about various Talmudic passages and (in particular) about kabbalism, he also evinced a genuine esteem for the rabbinic authorities that he cited. One such gesture is so small that we would be forgiven for missing it entirely. A surviving copybook contains Casaubon’s notes from a visit to Oxford’s Bodleian Library in 1612. He consulted two Hebrew books, one of which was the great Bible commentary composed in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries by Isaac Abravanel. Casaubon recorded several disagreements with his source, but when copying out the title he faithfully reproduced the word zatzal after Abravanel’s name. This acronym, as Casaubon well knew, stands in for the Hebrew phrase “may the memory of a righteous man be a blessing.” He was probably the only early-modern Christian ever to bestow this honorific on a Jew.

Now, in their extraordinary book, Grafton and Weinberg have returned the compliment. The book is not for the faint of heart—one cannot tell a story such as this without engaging in close textual analysis and reconstructing a series of highly technical and distant controversies; but those who persevere will have their reward. These two superb scholars have pooled their considerable talents to conjure for us a world of such immense and varied learning that it is bound, in Montesquieu’s words, to “astonish our small souls.” At the beginning of their study, Grafton and Weinberg share an amusing anecdote. The nineteenth-century Jewish bibliographer Isaac ben Jacob, happening upon Casaubon’s heavily annotated copy of a Hebrew grammar in the British Library, attributed the marginalia to a “Rabbi Yitzchak Kasuban.” By the time you reach the end of Grafton and Weinberg’s book, you will see that Isaac ben Jacob was not wrong.

Eric Nelson is a professor of government at Harvard University and the author, most recently, of The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought (Harvard University Press). This article ran in the March 3, 2011, issue of the magazine.

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