- The Insight of Unbelievers. Nicholas of Lyra and Christian Reading of Jewish Text in the Later Middle Ages by Deeana Copeland Klepper
A particularly interesting group among twelfth- and thirteenth-century Christian exegetes were the Hebraists whose interest in the literal or historical meaning of the Bible led them to consult Hebrew Bibles and Jewish exegesis, often through the intermediary of Jews of their acquaintance. The school of St. Victor in Paris was renowned for its Hebraism. Less well known but at least as interesting was the work of Herbert of Bosham, who served in St. Thomas Becket’s household and whose commentary on the book of Psalms incorporated a great deal of material from the French Jewish exegete Rashi (d. 1105). Herbert was English, as were many other Hebraists of this period such as Andrew of St. Victor, Stephen Langton, Robert Grosseteste, and Roger Bacon. Deeana Copeland Klepper follows Richard W. Southern in suggesting that English interest in history and science might have stimulated interest in working with the original languages of the Bible, which included Greek. Striking is how many of the English Hebraists were Franciscan or had a strong Franciscan connection. Klepper contrasts Franciscan use of Hebrew material that helped them to explain the literal meaning of the scriptures with Dominican recourse to Jewish postbiblical texts as part of their concerted conversion program from the latter half of the thirteenth century. But, as Klepper points out, any kind of usage of Jewish sources for Christian purposes did beg the question how it could be that Jews had not been convinced by their own material to embrace Christianity.
This is the issue that Nicholas of Lyra took on in his early work on the Advent of Christ of 1309. Here he argued vociferously that the literal text of the Hebrew prophecies proved conclusively that Jesus Christ was God and man; and he stressed that many Jews, in fact, had accepted Christ as their savior. Postbiblical Jews had not converted because, in their greed and fear of poverty, they preferred their texts that promised them material rewards. Also, they had been habituated by their education [End Page 138] to despise Christian beliefs and equate them with idolatry, which they wished to avoid at all costs. Nicholas’s explanations betrayed his familiarity with contemporary epistemological concerns that tried to explain the processes of knowing and the reasons for ignorance. Using these tools, he explained that most of the elite among the Jews of Jesus’ day would have known him to be the divine Messiah. Their response to Jesus, however, became emotionally charged when he started to challenge them. The result of this was that they became cognitively incapable of acknowledging him for what they knew him to be. We see in Nicholas’s argument how Christian thinking on Jews was so often driven by essentially Christian concerns. For, as Klepper points out so convincingly, Nicholas had to demonstrate the reliability of his Jewish sources before he could embark on his great project, his Postilla litteralis, in which he provided a literary commentary of the whole of the Bible by using a whole raft of Jewish sources from biblical Hebrew and Talmudic material to Rashi, whom he used most of all. Klepper’s book helps us to understand how Nicholas’s Postilla can be seen as the high point of medieval Christian Hebraism and how it served Christians of the following centuries as their primary source for Jewish exegetical material.