Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.05.24

Anthony Grafton, Joanna Weinberg, "I have always loved the holy tongue": Isaac Casaubon, the Jews, and a Forgotten Chapter in Renaissance Scholarship.   Cambridge, MA/London:  Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011.  Pp. x, 380.  ISBN 9780674048409.  $35.00.  

Reviewed by Pieter W. van der Horst, Utrecht, The Netherlands (

This is an extraordinary book about Isaac Casaubon (1559-1614), a man who is well known for his fine editions of and commentaries on classical Greek and Latin authors (Theophrastus, Strabo, Diogenes Laertius, Persius, among others). What is little known, however, and what is revealed in this book by Grafton and Weinberg, is that, apart from his work as a classical philologist, Casaubon was also an ardent student of ancient and medieval Jewish literature in Hebrew and Aramaic. The evidence for this is found not so much in his published work as in the copious marginal notes Casaubon jotted down in the books he read, in his separate notebooks, in his diary, in his many letters, and in other material most of which is unpublished. Grafton and Weinberg found this material in many libraries in Europe and the USA (see the list on pp. 335-340), but most of it in the Bodleian Library and the British Library. There they combed through thousands of pages with Casaubon’s often almost illegible scribblings. Many hundreds of these notes are quoted by the authors, in English translation in the text, but with the Latin original in the footnotes. As they state, “once we take all the evidence into account – once we retrace Casaubon’s full webs of annotations and diary entries, letters and publications – it will become clear that Hebrew studies played a vital role in his life and thought, and that they shed a necessary light on his methods as a scholar” (29-30). The result of their investigation is an utterly fascinating story, an elegantly written masterpiece of great ingenuity.

After having paid attention to the role Casaubon’s unmasking of the Corpus Hermeticum as a forgery in the ecclesiastical debates of his days (he was a Calvinist and Huguenot), Grafton and Weinberg deal at length with questions such as, How and where did Casaubon get his knowledge of Hebrew and Aramaic?, Which were the Hebrew books he owned?, How did he relate to the Christian Hebraists of his time?, etc. In 1610, Casaubon wrote to the famous Christian Hebraist Johann Buxtorf: “Amavi semper linguam sanctam” (hence the book’s title). At the same time he was very critical of the Christian Kabbalists whom he could not take seriously as scholars. His admiration for the work of the Jewish philosopher Maimonides was great, however. After discussing Casaubon’s work on the Judaeo-Greek Letter of Aristeas, Grafton and Weinberg present a detailed treatment of Casaubon’s reaction to Johann Buxtorf’s work Synagoga (1604) and Azariah de’ Rossi’s Light of the Eyes (1575), two of the most influential books on Judaism of his age. They conclude that Casaubon’s knowledge of Jews and Judaism was great, but that it clearly was a knowledge derived not from direct experience but from books.

The longest chapter of the book (almost 70 pages) deals with the conflict between Casaubon and Baronio, a conflict that dominated the last decade of his life. Between 1588 and 1607, cardinal Cesare Baronio (1538-1607) had published his multivolume work Annales Ecclesiastici, in which he tried to demonstrate on historical grounds that the Roman Catholic Church was exactly the kind of institution that Jesus had wanted to found. Casaubon wrote a devastating review that expanded into a manuscript of more than 800 pages (it was unfinished at his death but was published posthumously as De rebus sacris et ecclesiasticis exercitationes XVI). In it he concentrated on the historical circumstances of the life of Jesus, whom he saw as a pious Jew, and he gloatingly and at great length exposed the cardinal’s glaring lack of knowledge of Jewish life and thought in first-century Palestine. Here Casaubon demonstrated that, besides being a classicist, he was also a Judaist, whose aim it was to use his Judaic knowledge for as exact as possible a historical reconstruction of the origins of Christianity. That gave him the opportunity to argue that “Baronio’s failings as a Hebraist mattered as much as his defects as a Hellenist, and that both made it impossible for him to write a scholarly study of the early church” (183). For all his hidden Calvinist agenda, Casaubon shows himself here to be a formidable philologist.

The final chapter deals with Casaubon’s very few contacts with living Jewish informants, of which we know only two. Especially the gripping story of Casaubon’s collaboration with Jacob Barnet (pieced together painstakingly from Casaubon’s and others’ notes and letters; see pp. 257-280) makes for unforgettable reading, and one would wish for more of that. Here we also find an illuminating comparison with the contacts with Jews maintained by Casaubon’s friend Scaliger, with whom he had a lively correspondence and who, as the authors argue, was intellectually Casaubon’s superior.

The book has three Appendices. The first was written by Alistair Hamilton and deals with Casaubon’s arduous attempts to master Arabic, a very instructive piece. The second is about Casaubon’s views of the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible and the rabbinic Masora. The third is a catalogue of Casaubon’s Hebrew and Judaic library. What follows are a glossary of Judaic terms, explained for the classicist, a long list of the manuscripts and their present locations, a list of primary sources, a bibliography of secondary litertaure, acknowledgements, and an index. The book is beautifully executed, it contains more than 40 halftone plates of Casaubon’s notes, and the number of typos is negligible. This splendid work is a major achievement and it deserves unreserved recommendation.

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