This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Rabbi in the Abbey*

The most acerbic conflicts between Jews and Christians have hinged on their differing readings of Biblical passages. For Christians, the chief value of the "Old Testament" lay in the prophecies and "prefigurations" that, as they believed, were fulfilled in the life and death of Jesus. Jews reading the same texts might apply them to the future redemption. In many cases, Jews fail to discern any messianic content whatsoever .

During the Middle Ages, the two communities kept at arm's length from one another, and each read their Bible according to their received understanding. However the respective commentaries frequently indicate, whether explicitly or by implication, they were well aware of the competing interpretations.

Take for example the text of Isaiah 2:22: "Cease ye from man, whose breath is in his nostrils: for wherein is he to be accounted of?" The Hebrew word bameh that is rendered rhetorically as "wherein" was translated in the Catholic Latin version (known as the "Vulgate") as "high" or "exalted." The change transformed the verse into a reference to Jesus, as if to say: Stop afflicting the Man [i.e., Jesus], because he is reputed to be of exalted status.

A twelfth-century commentator from northern France challenged the Christian reading on solid linguistic grounds, and noted that the larger context of the chapter strongly supports the Jewish reading, since it is a warning to the Judeans not to place their trust on any mortal king, particularly the Egyptian Pharaoh, to save them from the impending wrath of the Babylonians.

The same commentator is not above challenging several other of the most popular Christian Biblical proof texts. Thus, in discussing Isaiah 7:14-16, which was understood as a prediction of the virgin birth, he notes that in its original context the prophecy is part of a reassurance that Judah will be delivered from an attack by the kings of Aram and Israel--an event that predated Jesus by many centuries.

Similarly, our commentator insists that the "suffering servant" chapters in Isaiah, applied by the church to Jesus' torments, are better understood as personifications of the vanquished Jews of the Babylonian captivity whose anguish serves an atoning function. He even suggests that the "man of sorrows" in the passage might be Isaiah himself.

All the above instances of exegetical controversy seem quite normal in the setting of medieval Christian-Jewish disputations.

However, they take on a very different significance when we note that the French commentator whom we have been citing was not a Jew, but a Christian!

Indeed, the author of those staunch defences of Jewish theological positions was Andrew of St. Victor, a distinguished Catholic cleric who served as the abbot of monasteries in France and Britain.

The Abbey of St. Victor, where Andrew spent much of his scholarly career, had already acquired a reputation for its unconventional approach to Biblical study. Under the leadership of Andrew's teacher Hugh of St. Victor, a new interest had evolved in recapturing the literal meaning of Biblical texts. In the context of medieval Christianity, this was no less than revolutionary, since the church had long since committed itself to symbolic and allegorical exegesis, insisting that the "letter" of Scripture was a trivial pursuit that stifled the spirit.

The vindication of the straightforward reading of the Bible, spearheaded by the scholars of St. Victor's, coincided with similar developments among Jewish French exegetes, as distinguished students of Rashi were also endeavouring to confront the Bible on its own terms, independently of the traditional explanations of the Midrashic and Talmud. It appears that one of the motives that impelled the Jewish sages to set aside the traditional Talmudic and Midrashic interpretations was their conviction that the unadorned plain sense of Scripture provided a stronger weapon against Christian proof-texts.

While it is not clear whether the trends in Christian scholarship were modelled after Jewish precedents, there can be no doubt that the Christian exegetes were consulting with Jewish teachers. Their writings are filled with references to the readings and interpretations of the "Hebrei," including many comments that cannot be traced to known literary sources. Conscious that in their Jewish quarters dwelled living links to the Biblical tradition, Hugh, Andrew and others were accustomed to drop in on the local rabbis in order to deepen their acquaintance with the Hebrew original.

As we saw in the above example, the Christian scholars were very respectful of the Jewish interpretations, often (though not always) giving them equal or greater credence than the readings that were current in the church. Indeed, here and there we can catch glimpses of theological debates between rabbis and monks that are extraordinary in their candidness.

Not all Christians at the time were quite ready for such academic neutrality and religious tolerance; and manuscripts of the St. Victor commentaries often contain disapproving glosses inserted by more conservative students, such as "You strive too much to judaize."

Nevertheless, the annals of Christian European would come to know several additional "judaizing" exegetes. The most influential of these was probably the French scholar Nicholas of Lyra (1270-1340). He deplored the state of Biblical studies in his own time, insisting that valid theological or allegorical interpretation of the Bible had to be grounded in a proper understanding of Hebrew language and grammar, which had to be based in turn on direct study of the original text, not translations. Towards that end, Nicholas achieved expertise in Hebrew and relied extensively on the commentaries of Rashi and other Jewish scholars. He produced interpretations that excelled in their clarity, precision and plausibility. Nicholas' "Postillae" soon achieved unequalled popularity and, in a manner reminiscent of the place of Rashi among Jewish readers, was the first Biblical commentary to be printed. By the fifteenth century it was widely rumoured that Nicholas was of Jewish birth, though there was no truth to the report.

Nicholas of Lyra exerted a decisive influence upon the new vernacular Biblical translations that proliferated during the Protestant Reformation. Among other things, this accounts for some of the uncanny agreements between the King James translation of the Bible and the traditional Jewish interpretations as taught by Rashi. For all that many Jews enjoy whining about our reliance on English Bibles that are rooted in a Christian version, the fact is that--aside from a relatively small number of places where the translation blatantly reflects Christian theological doctrine--the elegant King James English, with its faithful echoes of the original Hebrew syntax and word order, has provided a comfortable companion for several Torah and Tanakh editions issued under Jewish auspices, including those of Chief Rabbi Hertz and the Jewish Publication Society.

The following quote, written by a student of the twelfth-century theologian Peter Abelard, reveals another reason why medieval Christians had such appreciation for Jewish scholarship:

If the Christians educate their sons, they do so not for God, but for gain, in order that the one brother, if he be a cleric, may help his father and mother and his other brothers. They say that a cleric will have no heir and whatever he has will be ours and the other brothers.'
...But the Jews, out of zeal for God and love of the law, put as many sons as they have to letters, that each may study God's law...A Jew, however poor, if he had ten sons would put them all to letters, not for gain, as the Christians do, but for the understanding of God's law--and not only his sons, but his daughters.
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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, June 15 2000, 10-11.

  • Bibliography:
    • Grossman, Avraham. The Early Sages of Ashkenaz: Their Lives, Leadership and Works. Jerusalem: Magnes, 1995.
    • Hailperin, Herman. Rashi and the Christian Scholars. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1963.
    • Kamin, Sarah. "Affinities Between Jewish and Christian Exegesis in 12th Century Northern France." Paper presented at the Ninth World Congress of Jewish Studies 1985.
    • Neumann. "Influence de Rachi et d'autres commentateurs juifs sur les postilles de Lyra." Revue des Etudes Juives 26-27 (1893): 172-82, 250-62.
    • Smalley, Beryl. The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.