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The Historian as Hero

The Light of the Eyes
By Azariah de’Rossi
Translated and annotated by Joanna Weinberg
(Yale University Press, 802 pp., $125) 

For at least a few years toward the end of his life, Azariah de' Rossi believed that February 26, 747 B.C.E. was the most important date in world history.And this conviction helped make him the most innovative Jewish historian of the sixteenth century. On that day Nabonassar ascended to the throne of the kingdom of Babylon. Ptolemy, the greatest astronomer of the ancient world, recorded the precise intervals from Nabonassar's accession to later events commemorated by ancient historians and remembered in Jewish tradition: the death of Alexander the Great, for example, and the reign of Augustus. He also dated eclipses, new moons and full moons, and other astronomical events by their distance in years, months, days, and hours from the era of Nabonassar (he was drawing on Babylonian records that did the same). Azariah took Nabonassar as an alternate name for Salmanassar, the king of Assyria mentioned in 2 Kings. Like the spot on a trouser cuff that enabled Sherlock Holmes, a great positivist of a later date, to trace a man's movements through London's muddy streets, this one tiny smudge of evidence enabled Azariah to reconstruct the entire later history of Israel, from the Babylonian Exile down to the fall of the Second Temple and beyond, to the year and often to the day.

Nabopolassar, another king mentioned by Ptolemy, must be the biblical Nebuchadnezzar, who destroyed the First Temple. Ptolemy's evidence set him definitively in the late seventh century B.C.E., a century after Nabonassar. Cyrus, the Persian king who restored the Jews to the Holy Land, succeeded Cambyses, whose dates Ptolemy also established. So he must have carried out his divine mission in the late sixth century B.C.E. All told, the Persians ruled the Jews for some two hundred twenty-one years, until Alexander in his turn destroyed their empire.

For millennia, the Jews had recorded their history by begettings and generations. Chronicles were precise to the point of pedantry about the chains of tradition, the dynasties of priests and teachers who had preserved and taught the law. But they made little effort to connect these events to anything happening in the wider world of Persians and Greeks and Romans--except when the Bible mentioned such events. The Seder Olam Rabba, a widely used world chronicle, allotted only thirty-four years to the Persian kingdom, since that sufficed for the kings who appeared in the Bible--even though the vast empire of Cyrus actually lasted for centuries.

Suddenly, as Azariah read and worked, the swarming names and dates crystallized into a single coherent narrative, confirmed by the evidence of the stars. The outlines, the dates, and the details of Jewish history re-assembled themselves in a sharp new order, as if a balky modem had suddenly delivered all at once the elements of a colorful web page. The later history of the Jews now rested on Nabonassar's accession date, like a great boulder delicately balanced on a single point. And the pagan history that unfolded alongside came into focus for the first time.

It all sounds a bit bizarre now-- the frantic computations of a Jewish Mr. Casaubon, digging through endless massive books in a futile search for the Key to All Chronologies. But Azariah's work does not really resemble George Eliot's imagined masterpiece of maniacal pedantry. As Joanna Weinberg shows in this magnificent volume, when the Mantuan Jew Azariah the Red sat down in Ferrara near the end of his life and set about computing the dates of world history, he was carrying out something like a one-man historical revolution. Azariah scrutinized the beams and pillars that sustained the vast, enchanted palace of traditional Jewish learning. He used a strong new lamp--the new Christian scholarship of the sixteenth century, in which chronology was the hottest of topics, the first of many structuralisms to become an intellectual fashion--to detect corrosion and distortion. In the end, he proved to his own satisfaction, and to the consternation of some of his readers, such as the great rabbi Joseph Caro, that the ancient structure that Jewish scholars had inhabited for so long was in imminent danger of collapse.

Jewish chronology, Azariah discovered, had left out dozens of rulers and hundreds of years, but that was only the start of his polemic. Jewish scholarship treated texts that had never been meant to be taken literally as if they told true stories about the past. And Jewish histories omitted whole eras--the Hellenistic one, for example, during which Greek-speaking Jews had flourished throughout the Mediterranean, translated the Bible into Greek, and connected the truths of revelation with those of Platonic philosophy. All these theses, and many more, Azariah put forward in the spiraling, densely learned, frenetically over-argued chapters of his Me'or Enayim, or The Light of the Eyes--the immense Borgesian book, part translation, part commentary, part encyclopedia, that he published in 1573 and republished in revised form two years later. In this extraordinary work he did more than tear down parts of the existing structure: he used astronomy and philology, Christian scholarship and classical texts, to add new mansions where the old ones had stood.

De' Rossi was by no means the only Jew to write history in the sixteenth century. Solomon Ibn Verga, Joseph Hacohen, Abraham Zacuto, and David Gans all described the Jewish past in novel ways. Joseph Hacohen, whose work appeared in 1554, proclaimed that he was re-starting the line of Israel's chroniclers, in imitation of Josephus--the ancient military leader and candid traitor who wrote the history of the Jews and told the tragic story of Vespasian's Jewish War, in Greek, in the first century C.E. The Prague historian David Gans took an interest in the inventions and the discoveries of his day as well as in the long tradition of Jewish historiography. He enjoyed cordial relations with Kepler and Brahe.

Yet The Light of the Eyes did not look like any of its competitors. Instead of tracing the chain of tradition, human link by human link, or braiding the strands of Jewish and non-Jewish history, year by year, into a chronicle, Azariah wrote critical history. He identified--and sometimes translated in full--the sources on which he drew. He made them the objects of long critical essays, in which he weighed every possible interpretation, often at mind-numbing length. And he made clear, more than once, that he had found errors in even the greatest of the Jewish authorities who wrote before him.

No wonder that his own vast book, though even more heavily loaded with Jewish learning than with Christian learning, failed to become a Jewish classic. Christian scholars cited and praised it; but in the Jewish world, after an early flurry of attacks, it sailed on and on like a great ghost ship, lights burning, flags flying, and smoke pouring from its stacks, until the early nineteenth century. Only then did the creators of the Wissenschaft des Judenthums, the critical historiography of Judaism, discover and board The Light of the Eyes. They paid Azariah the ultimate compliment of treating him as a peer. Leopold Zunz wrote his life, David Cassel and Zvi Hirsch Jaffe edited and annotated his work, and in due course Salo Baron and other historians analyzed his historical method and argued with him about what they saw as his mistakes.

But this densely technical literature, much of it in Hebrew, largely concentrated on Azariah's uses and readings of Jewish texts and has only rarely attempted to set The Light of the Eyes into the other contexts--especially the Christian ones--from which it emerged. Joanna Weinberg has spent almost thirty years studying Azariah's work. A pupil of Arnaldo Momigliano and Chimen Abramsky, she inhabits both of the worlds in which Azariah lived, the rabbinical and the humanistic. Her book is a marvel of learning economically presented. It provides the first full translation of The Light of the Eyes into a Western language--and an amazingly clear and accessible one at that.

But Weinberg has done far more. Years of patient and devoted effort in the British Library and elsewhere have enabled her to identify every book that Azariah read, and to work out how he understood--and misunderstood--them, and to compare him with his contemporaries on both sides of the religious line. Her spare, lucid, tightly argued introduction and notes make clear not only what he himself achieved, but also what he owed to others, and they reveal Azariah himself as a newly complex and fascinating historical figure whose only real peer, she argues, was not a Jew at all, but the French Christian polymath Joseph Scaliger.

We do not know much about Azariah's life, and Weinberg lays out with great clarity what little can be established. He was born about 1510 or 1511, and grew up in Mantua, where he studied--or at least copied--works in popular fields of Jewish literature: astrology, exegesis, even The Tales of Sinbad.He married a banker's sister, taught, and worked as a censor, presumably deleting passages that Christians found objectionable in Hebrew books. Like some other Italian Jews, he also studied in at least one Christian institution, the University of Bologna. He certainly had a comprehensive Jewish education. The Light of the Eyes buzzes with dozens of quotations from the many tractates of the Babylonian Talmud, some of them marred by small errors that suggest that he worked from memory. (As Weinberg points out, the Talmud had been publicly condemned by papal decree in 1553, and it is quite possible that Azariah had no copy of the text to consult as he worked.)

Scholars in the Renaissance were expected to suffer many forms of ill health: Saturn, the gloomy planet, pursued them and made them melancholy, and sitting for long hours over books gave them indigestion, pallor, and worse. Like the good yeshiva bocher and humanist that he was, Azariah conformed to type. Fortunately he consulted an able doctor, Amatus Lusitanus, who managed to cure what was apparently a peptic ulcer and make Azariah "as strong `as a boxer.'" In 1567, like many other Jews, Azariah left Bologna, from which all Jews would soon be expelled, for Ferrara, where the ruling Estensi favored Jews and converts, and even allowed converts to practice Judaism again.

In this city of palaces and poets, Azariah embarked, in the most dramatic way, on his extraordinary career as a scholar and writer. Late at night on 17 Kislev 5331, which was November 18, 1570, a tremendous noise woke the terrified inhabitants of Ferrara. The ground shook, tiles rained down from roofs, and turrets and chimneys fell. On the next day, as the Ferrarese inspected the damage, worse shocks followed, devastating the city: "the earth had become a terror sent from God." Azariah's family and many others barely escaped the earthquake. Most fled to gardens outside the city, where they pitched tents or built huts, or to boats on the Po.

While Azariah and his family lived in the open, a Christian showed him a fascinating book, the Letter of Aristeas. This text, written in Greek in the second century B.C.E, told the story of how Ptolemy Philadelphus, king of Egypt, had the librarian of his great collection at Alexandria ask the Jews for an accurate copy of their scriptures in Greek. Aristeas included a vivid description of the Holy Land, where the High Priest Eleazar gives Ptolemy's ambassadors a detailed allegorical explanation of the Jewish ritual code, and a long account of how the seventy translators whom Eleazar sent to Alexandria were received there. The climax of the text is the story of how the translation itself was carried out: the seventy translators, working independently on the island of Pharos, all produced identical versions, which they then synchronized. This clever fabricated account, which liberally quoted official documents, established the unique authority of the Greek translation of the Old Testament that came to be called the Septuagint, or the Bible of the Seventy.

Azariah's accidental neighbor asked him if the Hebrew text could "clarify and elucidate some of the passages he found obscure in the Latin" of the translation that he used. Azariah replied that there was no Hebrew text: the story was unknown to the Jews. (In fact, as Giuseppe Veltri has shown, rabbinical literature contains many favorable references to Ptolemy's enterprise: as often, Azariah quoted selectively to make his points more dramatic.) The discovery filled him with elation. "I lifted my eyes to the mountains," he wrote, dramatizing his excitement by using the language of the Psalmist, "to see whether they would skip like rams and to the walls should they move"--and then he set out to translate the Letter of Aristeas for "the learned of our people." The result was not just the first Hebrew version of Aristeas, but The Light of the Eyes, which began with a long and moving description of the earthquake in Ferrara and swelled to include searching examinations of many segments of Jewish tradition that had nothing to do with Aristeas or the Septuagint. 

The conversation may not really have taken place. Renaissance writers, Jewish and non-Jewish, loved to invent dramatic origin stories for their books.But symbolically, at least, it expresses something profoundly illuminating. Azariah had felt the ground shift under his feet, in the library as well as in the earthquake, and in The Light of the Eyes he built a textual seismograph in order to determine what both sets of rumblings meant for the society and the culture to which he belonged. The earthquake of 1570 he dispatched fairly quickly. Natural philosophy could not account for it, and the astrologers' predictions of further disasters to follow had not come true. Only God could have made the earth move, presumably in order to chastise a sinful people. Jewish sages and the Christian writer Antonio Buoni (who, Azariah punned, was "truly ... good and praiseworthy") agreed: "the earthquake demonstrates the finger of God working through the medium of nature." It was a punishment for past sins and a warning to sinners to repent.

But the intellectual tremors started coming long before the physical ones did, and they never let up. They took the form of books, Jewish and Christian.Streams of new literature swirled around Azariah. "I was overjoyed and thanked the Lord," he wrote, "because the work Sefer Yuhasin recently arrived in Italy." This chronicle by the astronomer and astrologer Abraham Zacuto, though written early in the sixteenth century, reached print only in 1566, in Constantinople. But Azariah--who, as he recorded in a note in his own manuscript of The Light of the Eyes, now in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, felt "very happy about the book for I found that he agreed with my opinion in many passages"--read it before he wrote his own work in the early 1570s.

More powerful shock waves struck Azariah when the Christian scholars of the time launched and detonated what amounted to scholarly bombshells. Though he lived in the Italy of the Counter-Reformation, and wrote his most important work as the censorship of the Inquisition took hold, Azariah had surprisingly good access to the newest forms of international scholarship--even those that might endanger orthodoxy as the Inquisition saw it. The Latin translation of the Letter of Aristeas from which he made his Hebrew version, for example, "was printed about ten years ago in Basel, a city teeming with Christian sages." The Swiss city in which Erasmus spent many years late in life did indeed swarm with learned Christian scholars and printers--but almost all of them were Protestants, in many cases Italians who had gone into exile for religious reasons, and the Index of Forbidden Books condemned much of what they produced as heretical. Somehow Azariah read his careful way through many of the dangerous works of ecclesiastical scholarship that they published--as well as the writings of other figures who were problematic from a Catholic standpoint, such as the Protestant Hebraist Sebastian Munster, a well-known convert from Catholicism. The persecuted Jew who died in poverty around 1577, soliciting financial help from Christian patrons but refusing to the end to convert, paradoxically enjoyed an intellectual freedom that most Italian Christians lacked. The cutting-edge scholarship that his liminal position enabled him to read radically changed his way of thinking about the past.

When Azariah rebuilt the timeline of Jewish history from eclipses and other astronomical records, he may not have believed at the outset that he would be departing from Jewish tradition. For centuries, Jewish thinkers had carried on a tradition that began in Persia and flourished in the Islamic world.They tried to connect history with astrology. In the twelfth century, for example, the great biblical exegete Abraham Ibn Ezra argued that one of the planets presided over each of the great religions. (Saturn presided over the faith of the Jews.) A particular datable planetary conjunction heralded the rise of each of these sects. Both Jewish and Christian thinkers (notably Roger Bacon) developed these ideas extensively. They implied that it should be possible, at least in a schematic way, to fix the dates of the most important historical events by using astronomical evidence.

Azariah agreed that the stars in their courses had much to say about world history, but he used a completely different key to decode their message. He denied that the planets shaped events on earth. And he worked from sources that lay outside the Catholic canon as well as the Jewish one as he articulated a new approach. In 1543, as Copernicus lay dying, his On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres appeared in Protestant Nuremberg. It was Copernicus who first suggested that Salmanassar was another name for Nabonassar, and showed that by doing so one could turn chronology from an art of feeble approximations to one of crisp quantitative precision. His work found eager readers throughout northern Europe, including the Wittenberg world historian Johann Funck and the French lawyer and political theorist Jean Bodin.

Azariah read about Salmanassar and Nabonassar, as he explained, in the work of "Gerardus Mercator, who wrote a chronology of world history both on the basis of Holy Writ and the best gentile writers and on the basis of the stars whose rotations according to Ptolemy are regular." The great Flemish cartographer, who is still remembered for his system of map projection, argued sharply that even the Bible did not provide a sufficient basis for world history on its own. The scholar must use the full range of ancient histories and astronomical evidence to re-create the full context for biblical history and to connect it with that of Assyrians and Persians, Greeks and Romans.

Mercator's Chronology did not appear until 1569. Yet Azariah drew his own method from this daring revisionist book, the work of a Catholic whose views on many subjects were far from orthodox. The new data that Mercator--and Copernicus--had assembled gave him the courage to correct the traditional Jewish chronology. Though The Light of the Eyes dealt above all with Jewish sources and traditions, its core methods came in large part from non-Jewish works such as Mercator's. Azariah, in other words, was a supremely deft cultural mediator, who could wield the tools and weapons of the Christians as deftly as they did, and apply them to texts and problems that they did not know.

As he made clear, even the literary form of The Light of the Eyes represented an effort to emulate Christian models. Azariah's book interspersed glossed texts with long critical discussions of a vast range of topics, in a manner that was alien to the traditional genres of Jewish writing but very fashionable in the world of contemporary Christian scholarship. This was, after all, the age of Justus Lipsius, the great student of Tacitus whose miscellany of essays on problems in classical scholarship, published in 1569, made him a celebrity (not to mention Montaigne, whose Essays would appear for the first time a few years after Azariah's book, and whose historical consciousness has something in common with Azariah). The antiquaries whose historical work Momigliano made famous offered Azariah the last on which he stretched the materials that he had mastered as a boy and young man.

Yet Azariah did more than inject the tradition of Jewish scholarship with intellectual steroids compounded by erudite Christian alchemists. As he went "roaming the paths of Aggadah," as he put it, he made clear that he took a new and critical view toward central aspects of rabbinical tradition. The status of the rabbinical stories and discourses known as aggadot had long been controversial. Some authorities seemed to consider them so authoritative as to be on a par with the legal portions of the rabbinical tradition, and many congregations--as the Venetian rabbi Samuel Katzenellenbogen complained--tended to "avoid listening to the laws and look for Aggadot and Midrashim." But others denounced the study of this lore as a way to forfeit one's share in the life to come, or even as a form of sorcery.

Azariah approached the topic in two quite different ways. Weaving together citations from a vast range of Jewish sources, many of them pulled far out of context, he did his best to show that the aggadot had been composed not to teach eternal truths but to persuade particular audiences on particular points. "Each Aggadah is said according to the requirements of its compiler," he instructed, "namely to propel people to one idea or another." Unlike the scrolls of Torah, the forests of aggadah belonged to the literature of Jewish rhetoric--which explained why some of them seemed to contradict others. They were completely bound to context; they intended to persuade, not to reveal the truth.

Azariah's other approach was more radical--and more alien to traditional forms of interpretation. He offered a case study, a microhistory of tradition. He chose a tale that appeared in Pirqe d'Rabbi Eliezer, or The Chapters of Rabbi Eliezer, a ninth-century text, and in a number of other sources. These texts related that after the conquering Roman general Titus entered the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem, God took vengeance on him for the destruction of the Temple. A gnat flew up Titus's nostril, entered his brain, and there grew "to the size of a pigeon weighing two selahs. This was to make him aware that his power was of no consequence." After seven years Titus, now emperor of Rome, died, begging those around him to break open his skull. When they did, they found the bird.

Azariah handled this story with the disillusioned, dapper contempt of a coroner weighing the bodily organs of a corpse. He began by admitting that he had not even bothered to compare the different versions of the story in detail. His reason seems simple, but it was quite daring: any "intelligent person" who heard this story could immediately see "that it cannot be taken literally." The emperor's skull would not have been large enough to contain a bird.Titus died, according to the ancient historians, not of pigeon infestation but of fever. And in any event he died not seven years but approximately twelve years after the fall of the Temple: "This means that at the end of the seven years when, according to the rabbis of blessed memory, Titus's life came to an end, he actually came to power." Historical evidence showed that the story was not only silly, but inconsistent with clear truths about ancient history known from other, non-Jewish sources.

Like the Christian humanists who set out to correct Greek and Latin texts, to detect forgeries such as the Donation of Constantine, and to reconstruct the religious and political worlds of the ancients, and who thereby demolished the legendary antiquity that was created and preserved through the Middle Ages in saints' lives, romances, and world chronicles, Azariah proved willing to challenge texts that bore considerable symbolic authority. Like Erasmus and the other Christian humanists who used the Hebrew and Greek originals of the Old and New Testaments to correct the Latin of the medieval Vulgate, Azariah was willing to take his chief weapons from the camp of the enemy. The moral was clear, once again: the rabbis had never meant these stories to be taken literally. They were "an invention and a way of instruction used by those of perfect knowledge" to convince ordinary people of God's greatness--and not only Jewish sages, but also the wise men of other nations, had used similar allegories to similar effect. And the evidence of non-Jewish texts, which proved the point, outweighed the evidence of Jewish ones when tested in the balance of historical criticism.

"When some learned members of our people came to read what I had written about Titus's gnat," Azariah remarked, "they spoke out against me claiming that I had, as it were, impaired the holy words of our sages." He was not exaggerating. Learned readers--notably the Maharal of Prague a few years later--sharply criticized The Light of the Eyes for its audacious stance toward tradition, and some rabbinical authorities condemned it. In a Jewish world in which traditions of interpretation were often given the weight of law and divine inspiration, Azariah had taken the radical step of historicizing them. He dared to show that the utterances of the sages had to be read in context, and weighed against other sources and other forms of knowledge.Two hundred fifty years later, when Leopold Zunz set out to create a historical "Science of Judaism," he began in a very similar vein, by historicizing Rashi, showing that the great commentator had been not an omniscient sage but a medieval exegete and philosopher, whose knowledge in many fields had become completely obsolete. No wonder that he and others felt an elective affinity with Azariah.

Yet Azariah was more than a critic of old traditions: he was also a builder of new histories. Confronted with Latin translations of the works of Philo, the ancient Jewish Platonist of Alexandria, he was delighted to find that this "great philosopher, well versed in the works of Plato and Aristotle," also believed in one god, and angels, and the authority of Torah, and often used metaphors and arguments that reminded Azariah vividly of the rabbis. Yet Philo worried Azariah, since he frequently went wrong--as when he allegorized "several stories ... in the Torah which absolutely and certainly happened and saw the light of day." When Philo argued that "the belief in the literal account of the creation extended over six separate days is popular and unfounded," he treated "the perfect Torah" as if it were "a piece of poetry." He also made mistakes on all manner of technical questions--as when he insisted, for example, that only priests could carry out ritual slaughter.

But as Azariah pursued his investigation, the world shifted around him once again. Philo's mistakes transformed themselves into clues. Philo, he realized, had been a Jew, but one who "grew up in the Greek world and despite all his wisdom and fluency never saw nor knew the actual original text of Torah." He could read neither Hebrew nor Aramaic. Many of his errors in reading the Bible stemmed from his purely Hellenic culture, since he had to rely on the imperfect Greek translation of the Old Testament. At the same time, his case offered stunning new information on the Judaism of his day--information that no Hebrew source provided. Philo provided a rich account of the beliefs of the Essenes, whom Azariah immediately recognized asmembers of a forgotten Jewish sect, "eager to understand the Torah." And he exemplified a kind of Judaism that no longer existed in Azariah's time but fascinated him, cultured Jewish humanist and lover of the ancient philosophers that he was.

As in other cases, so in Philo's case, Azariah could not decide what verdict to issue about the man himself: "I shall call him neither Rav [rabbi or master] nor sage, heretic nor sceptic." As to the historical evidence that Philo offered, however, he felt no uncertainty at all. Philo's work opened a window on what scholars would much later call the lost world of Hellenistic Judaism: a world in which Jewish ritual and even the Torah itself took more than one form, and in which the teachings of the Greek philosophers mingled freely with those of Moses in the minds and the works of writers who revered the Torah, observed the commandments, and attended services in their own great Greek-speaking temple in Alexandria, in the midst of the Egyptians. The Jewish past would never again look as coherent as it once had. Even if it took centuries for modern Jewish scholars to follow up on the implications of Azariah's discoveries, Christian historians of the Jews began doing so almost at once.

Azariah did not always come down on the side of reason and progress--or what looks like it now. He clearly saw--thanks to the critical arguments of the Christian scholar Munster--that the popular Yosippon was a medieval re-writing of the works of the historical Josephus, not their Hebrew source; but he never condemned the text unequivocally. He knew the arguments of Elias Levita, who held that the Masoretes of Tiberias ceded the vowel points to the Hebrew Bible in the first millennium C.E.; but he rejected Elias's theory, even though he knew very well that all texts, sacred and profane alike, are transmitted by humans and change in the course of time, and he insisted that the vowels went back to Moses himself. He accepted not only the most up-to-date arguments of Copernicus and Mercator, but also the alluringly detailed texts of ancient historians from Babylon and Persia that the Dominican theologian Annius of Viterbo had forged, just before 1500, in order to drive evil Greek historians like Herodotus and Thucydides off the market. The Light of the Eyes contains translations of two of these fakes, as well as Azariah's version of the Letter of Aristeas.

Azariah commands respect even when his detailed arguments go wrong or his historical criticism falls into incoherence. The range and the depth of his scholarship, his critical sense, and his willingness to depart from received ideas of every kind, though he belonged to a community in which such ideas bore the chrism of age and holiness, make his book as exciting as it is enormous. So does his deep common sense. Though Azariah was fascinated by the mysterious numbers of chronology, he refused to believe that history revealed patterns, numerological or astrological, and he was contemptuous of efforts to predict the future. He bore up well under criticism, continuing to do work of the highest originality on the Syriac texts of the Gospels as well as to reply to his critics.

His case still challenges and provokes the historian. If ancient and modern writings not read in the medieval Jewish world gave him new questions and no information, what made Azariah himself take an interest in them? Why did he accept the methods and sources of Christian scholars? What put the light in his eyes? Yosif Hayim Yerushalmi argued, in Zakhor, that Azariah and the other Jewish historians of the sixteenth century wrote as they did because the chain of tradition had been broken. For centuries, Jews had preserved the past in memory and liturgy. Now they looked at it in a different way. The experience of exile--the great tragedy of the expulsion from Spain and southern Italy--forced Jews to realize that they were living in the terrible time of history, and to devise ways of writing about this that departed from earlier Hebrew genres

That would be one explanation for the light in Azariah's eyes. But Robert Bonfil, another immensely erudite historian of the Jews, has sharply criticized Yerushalmi. Most of the Jewish historical works that appeared in the sixteenth century, he points out, belonged to traditional genres, and reflected little or no sense of historical change and distance. Azariah, for his part, responded not so much to the exile from Spain as to the growing oppression that Jews were experiencing in his own time. The Counter-Reformation papacy pressed the Jews hard--especially in the papal states, to which Bologna belonged. In the Roman ghetto, Jews were forced to listen to sermons designed to convert them, and thwacked by disciplinarian friars when they spoke or nodded off.

At the same time, a new literature about the Jews, largely written by converts and Christians, claimed to expose the truth about Jewish rituals and Jewish society. The new ethnographies claimed objectivity, but often presented the Jews, already victims of many forms of oppression, with a stately bill of new accusations about superstitious practices and foolish beliefs. Azariah, in Bonfil's account, set out to defend what he saw as the core of Judaism against these forms of outside pressure, and used non-Jewish sources to fight the enemies of his people with their own weapons.

Weinberg agrees that Azariah sometimes wrote polemically against Christians, as when he asserted the antiquity of the Hebrew vowels. But she offers a different explanation, and it has much to be said for it. Azariah, she points out, had a great deal in common with one particular Christian scholar, whom he did not know and whose great books he did not live to read. Joseph Scaliger became, in the 1580s and the 1590s, the most celebrated polymath in Europe's great age of polymathy. He devoted himself to chronology, one of Azariah's favorite subjects, and he studied it in the same interdisciplinary way. He, too, singled out 747 B.C.E. as the key date in ancient history (though he insisted that Nabonassar was not Salmanassar, but the king of an independent Babylon). He, too, reported his results in hard print even when they had troubling implications for the authority of religious tradition--as they did when Scaliger discovered that the history of ancient Egypt seemed to have begun not only before the Flood, but before the Creation.

Scaliger, like Azariah, discovered Hellenistic Judaism; steeped himself in Philo, Josephus, and the Essenes; and used what he found to re-create the context of early Christianity--which he treated, in the first instance, as a transformation of existing Jewish rituals and beliefs. He, too, rejected astrology and prophecy, insisting that the study of history had nothing to do with efforts to predict the immediate or distant future. And he, too, provoked outcries from injured traditionalists in more than one camp. A fervent Calvinist by conviction, Scaliger pursued chronology wherever the sources led him, and dismayed the dominies in Geneva. Theodore Beza and other Calvinist divines sent Scaliger lengthy criticisms of his work, which he dismissed as contemptuously as he did the attacks of the Jesuits.

What mattered to Scaliger, in the end, was the truth: not what the theologians knew the record should say, but what it did say. By the end of his life, he confessed in private to his pupils that he "did not dare" publish what he had discovered about the manifest errors and inconsistencies in the Old and New Testaments--though he would have done so at once for any secular work. Yet in his publications he made clear that one must study the Bible with the same philological methods that one applied to Catullus or Livy, and that the Hebrew Bible itself was far from a complete or perfectly reliable record of the past.

Azariah loved Israel. He bedusted himself in the dust of his masters, as the ancient rabbis urged. But when he sat down to formulate his deepest convictions, he found himself defending not tradition but truth, and he clung to his independent views and novel methods even when doing so landed him in hot theological water. It seems implausible that he attacked the factual status of aggadot as part of an effort to defend Jewish tradition against all opponents. Weinberg explains his work, rather, as the result of a genuine effort to find out the truth about the past and the sources of Jewish tradition. Certainly Azariah had prejudices and made mistakes; and so did Scaliger. But both men seem to have been linked above all by an irresistible desire to know what had really happened--as well as by their stunning ability to identify the hard core of historical fact in what remain difficult and contentious sources.

At this point Weinberg takes us furthest from the present and deepest into a world that we have lost. Azariah and Scaliger, she argues, set out on their unending journeys through the forests of the past not in order to win positions or to influence people, or to respond to their biographical or historical circumstances, but because they thought it was the right way to learn the truth. They cut their own paths through the sources, even though they lived in a confessional age when many honorable but more ordinary spirits avoided the dangers of iconoclasm and non-conformity. Their passion for the real past, and only that passion, enabled them to turn authoritative traditions into history and to forge histories from previously ignored traditions. That passion explains why they became so excited about so obscure a date as February 26, 747 B.C.E. That passion explains why both of them, for all their religious differences, could make productive use of both Jewish and Christian sources and methods. That passion, even more than their gifts aslinguists and their great memories, made them great scholars, in the true sense of that overused term.

Weinberg shares this passion herself, and her simple-hearted effort to see Azariah as he was imbues her work with a rare purity. Nowadays, we are all much too knowing to believe that we can ever know the truth. Every rose has its canker: every intellectual enterprise, however abstruse, difficult and forbidding, has its roots in ideology and interest. So they tell us, at least, in sophisticated places. Weinberg knows better--and so did Azariah. For this reason, her book is a moral accomplishment as well as an intellectual one. And she has these accomplishments in common with the great Jewish scholar to whom she has devoted her career, and whose work she has now brought back to life.

This article originally ran in the October 8, 2001, issue of the magazine.