Hebrew Language #3 Among Christian scholars

The philological study of Hebrew among the Jews is described in the next part, under Hebrew Literature, of which it formed an integral part.

Among Christian scholars there was no independent school of Hebraists before the revival of learning. In the Greek and Latin Church the few fathers who, like Origen and Jerome, knew something of the language, were wholly dependent on their Jewish teachers, and their chief value for us is as depositaries of Jewish tradition. Similarly in the East, the Syriac version of the Old Testament is largely under the influence of the synagogue, and the homilies of Aphraates are a mine of Rabbinic lore.

13th-14th century Franciscan teacher Nicolaus Lyranus, practitioner of biblical exegesis in the Middle Ages.

In the middle ages some knowledge of Hebrew was preserved in the Church by converted Jews and even by non-Jewish scholars, of whom the most notable were the Dominican controversialist Raymundus Martini (in his Pugio fidei) and the Franciscan Nicolaus of Lyra, on whom Luther drew largely in his interpretation of Scripture. But there was no tradition of Hebrew study apart from the Jews, and in the 15th century when an interest in the subject was awakened, only the most ardent zeal could conquer the obstacles that lay in the way.

book printingOrthodox Jews refused to teach those who were not of their faith, and on the other hand many churchmen conscientiously believed in the duty of entirely suppressing Jewish learning. Even books were to be had only with the greatest difficulty, at least north of the Alps. In Italy things were somewhat better. Jews expelled from Spain received favour from the popes. Study was facilitated by the use of the printing-press, and some of the earliest books printed were in Hebrew.


15-16th century German Catholic humanist and a scholar of Greek and Hebrew, Johann Reuchlin – woodcut depiction from 1516

Johannes Pfefferkorn, German controversialist—a Christianized Jew—and opponent of Jewish literature, whose dispute with the Humanist and Hebraist Johannes Reuchlin (q.v.) was a European cause célèbre in the early 16th century. – Engraving by Hieronymus Hopfer

The father of Hebrew study among Christians was the humanist Johann Reuchlin (1455–1522), the author of the Rudimenta Hebraica (Pforzheim, 1506), whose contest with the converted Jew Pfefferkorn and the Cologne obscurantists, established the claim of the new study to recognition by the Church. Interest in the subject spread rapidly. Among Reuchlin’s own pupils were Melanchthon, Oecolampadius and Cellarius, while Sebastian Münster in Heidelberg (afterwards professor at Basel), and Büchlein (Fagius) at Isny, Strasburg and Cambridge, were pupils of the liberal Jewish scholar Elias Levita.

France drew teachers from Italy. Santes Pagninus of Lucca was at Lyons; and the trilingual college of Francis I. at Paris, with Vatablus and le Mercier, attracted, among other foreigners, Giustiniani, bishop of Nebbio, the editor of the Genoa psalter of 1516.

Babylonian Talmud; 2d edition; printed by Daniel Bomberg, Venice.

In Rome the converted Jew Felix Pratensis taught under the patronage of Leo X., and did useful work in connexion with the great Bomberg Bibles.

Cardinal Jiménez de Cisneros

Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, prelate, religious reformer, and twice regent of Spain (1506, 1516–17). In 1507 he became both a cardinal and the grand inquisitor of Spain

In Spain Hebrew learning was promoted by Cardinal Ximenes, the patron of the Complutensian Polyglot. The printers, as J. Froben at Basel and Etienne at Paris, also produced Hebrew books.

For a time Christian scholars still leaned mainly on the Rabbis. But a more independent spirit soon arose, of which le Mercier in the 16th, and Drusius early in the 17th century, may be taken as representatives. In the 17th century too the cognate languages were studied by J. Selden, E. Castell (Heptaglott lexicon) and E. Pococke (Arabic) in England, Ludovicus de Dieu in Holland, S. Bochart in France, J. Ludolf (Ethiopic) and J. H. Hottinger (Syriac) in Germany, with advantage to the Hebrew grammar and lexicon. Rabbinic learning moreover was cultivated at Basel by the elder Buxtorf who was the author of grammatical works and a lexicon.

Carpet page from the Leningrad Codex, the oldest complete manuscript of the Masoretic Text.

With the rise of criticism Hebrew philology soon became a necessary department of theology. Cappellus (d. 1658) followed Levita in maintaining, against Buxtorf, the late introduction of the vowel-points, a controversy in which the authority of the massoretic text was concerned. He was supported by J. Morin and R. Simon in France.

In the 18th century in Holland A. Schultens and N. W. Schroeder used the comparative method, with great success, relying mainly on Arabic.

In Germany there was the meritorious J. D. Michaelis and in France the brilliant S. de Sacy. In the 19th century the greatest name among Hebraists is that of Gesenius, at Halle, whose shorter grammar (of Biblical Hebrew) first published in 1813, is still the standard work, thanks to the ability with which his pupil E. Rödiger and recently E. Kautzsch have revised and enlarged it. Important work was also done by G. H. A. Ewald, J. Olshausen and P. A. de Lagarde, not to mention later scholars who have utilized the valuable results of Assyriological research.


Bibliography.—Among the numerous works dealing with the study of Hebrew, the following are some of the most practically useful.

Grammars, Introductory.—Davidson, Introductory Hebrew Grammar (9th ed., Edinburgh, 1888); and Syntax (Edinburgh, 1894). Advanced: Gesenius’s Hebräische Grammatik, ed. Kautzsch (28th ed., Leipzig, 1909; Eng. trans., Oxford, 1910); also Driver, Treatise on the Use of the Tenses in Hebrew (3rd ed., Oxford, 1892). For post-biblical Hebrew, Strack and Siegfried, Lehrbuch d. neuhebräischen Sprache (Leipzig, 1884).

Comparative Grammar.—Wright, Lectures on the Comp. Grammar of the Sem. Lang. (Cambridge, 1890); Brockelmann, Grundriss der vergleichenden Grammatik (Berlin, 1907, &c.).

Lexicons.—Gesenius’s Thesaurus philologicus (Leipzig, 1829–1858), and his Hebräisches Handwörterbuch (15th ed. by Zimmern and Buhl, Leipzig, 1910); Brown, Briggs and Driver, Hebrew and Eng. Lexicon (Oxford, 1892–1906). For later Hebrew: Levy, Neuhebräisches Wörterbuch (Leipzig, 1876–1889); Jastrow, Dictionary of the Targumi, &c. (New York, 1886, &c.); Dalman, Aramaisches neuhebräisches Wörterbuch (Frankfort a. M., 1897); Kohut, Aruch completum (Vienna, 1878–1890) (in Hebrew) is valuable for the language of the Talmud.

Hebrew Language by Arthur Ernest Cowley



Hebrew Language #2 The name “Hebrew” and Speech of Canaan



  1. Rabbinical Judaism
  2. If the First Christians were Jews, What Happened?
  3. But it is Just a Thing…
  4. Exploration 84 – Yehováh, Not Yahweh
  5. Episode 05: Teach Me Something with Rabbi Jessica Minnen

18 thoughts on “Hebrew Language #3 Among Christian scholars

  1. Pingback: Hebrew Language #4 Hebrew Literature #1 Old Testament | Bijbelvorser = Bible Researcher

  2. Pingback: Hebrew Language #5 Hebrew Literature #2 Torah, Apocryphal literature and Targum | Bijbelvorser = Bible Researcher

  3. Pingback: Hebrew Language #6 Hebrew Literature #3 Halakhah | Bijbelvorser = Bible Researcher

  4. Pingback: Hebrew Language #7 Hebrew Literature #4 Mishnah and Midrash | Bijbelvorser = Bible Researcher

  5. Pingback: Hebrew Language #8 Hebrew Literature #5 Talmud and Masorah | Bijbelvorser = Bible Researcher

  6. Pingback: Hebrew Language #9 Hebrew Literature #6 Hebrew Liturgy | Bijbelvorser = Bible Researcher

  7. Pingback: Hebrew Language #10 Hebrew Literature #7 The Geōnīm | Bijbelvorser = Bible Researcher

  8. Pingback: Hebrew Language #11 Hebrew Literature #8 The Qaraites or Karaites | Bijbelvorser = Bible Researcher

  9. Pingback: Hebrew Language #12 Hebrew Literature #9 Medieval scholarship | Bijbelvorser = Bible Researcher

  10. Pingback: Hebrew Language #13 Hebrew Literature #10 Exegesis | Bijbelvorser = Bible Researcher

  11. Pingback: Hebrew Language #14 Hebrew Literature #11 French school of the 11th century | Bijbelvorser = Bible Researcher

  12. Pingback: Hebrew Language #15 Hebrew Literature #12 High level of literature in Spain in the 12th and 13th century | Bijbelvorser = Bible Researcher

  13. Pingback: Hebrew Language #16 Hebrew Literature #13 Maimonides, Maimonists and anti-Maimonists | Bijbelvorser = Bible Researcher

  14. Pingback: Hebrew Language #17 Hebrew Literature #14 Families, works from France, Germany and the Levant | Bijbelvorser = Bible Researcher

  15. Pingback: Hebrew Language #18 Hebrew Literature #15 Limit of Hebrew literature its development | Bijbelvorser = Bible Researcher

  16. Pingback: Hebrew Language #19 Hebrew Literature #16 Later writers – From the Renaissance to 18th Century, going into a new religious movement within Judaism | Bijbelvorser = Bible Researcher

  17. Pingback: Hebrew Language #20 Hebrew Literature #17 Later writers – From the 18th Century into 19th century and Modernizing tendencies | Bijbelvorser = Bible Researcher

  18. Pingback: Hebrew Language #20 Hebrew Literature #18 The re-creation of Hebrew as a literary language | Bijbelvorser = Bible Researcher

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.