When Christians Returned to the Hebrew Bible

​As learned Protestants began to read the Hebrew Bible, and finding in it a template for a new political constitution, they quickly understood that it was not possible to thoroughly study the Book of Books without also learning the rabbinical sources. Despite this important realization, Jewish scholars across Europe also discovered that this phenomenon did not include a forgiving attitude toward Jews.

A portrait of John Seldon by an unknown artist. The painting is in the National Portrait Gallery, London 

​John Seldon (1584–1654) was not known to humble himself before anyone. In 1629, the jurist and member of British parliament was sent to the notorious Tower of London as punishment for having refused to recognize the authority of the king in dissolving the parliament. After four months in the Tower, when the king felt that the stubborn Seldon was ready to have the terms of his imprisonment eased, he permitted Seldon to choose one book with which to pass the time in his cell. Among the many books a seventeenth-century English Protestant lawyer could have chosen, Seldon asked for copies of the Babylonian and the Jerusalem Talmud.


A portrait of John Seldon by an unknown artist. The painting is in the National Portrait Gallery, London


The Old Testament: A Plan for a Divine Republic

This anecdote illustrates the great theological-political revolution Protestant Europe underwent in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in its return to the Bible in the original Hebrew. The return was not only to the Hebrew Bible, but also to its interpretation through the Jewish sources. Important Christian scholars dared to view the “Old Testament” in a new light: no longer was it just a book filled with allegorical hints to the life of Christ who was yet to come or of ancient law from an era long ago that had been replaced by the New Testament.

These scholars, called Hebraists, “summoned” the great Jewish sages of history to provide them with answers to the many questions provoked by reading the Bible in Hebrew. Many learned Protestants therefore began to translate key works of rabbinic literature, and so, for the first time in history, the Mishna, Talmud (the Babylonian and Jerusalem versions), Midrash, Zohar, the works of Maimonides, and many other of the treasures of the Jewish bookshelf were being systematically translated into various European languages including Latin, English, and German.

The Hebrew Bible was perceived by some scholars as the template for a perfect and divinely-driven political constitution. They viewed the Respublica Hebraeorum (as the political and religious order of Ancient Israel was called) to have been the perfect republic, which superseded in every aspect both the Roman republic and the Greek city-states of antiquity. But how to restore this perfect republic? The Hebrew Bible itself was fragmentary and contained quite a few contradictions.

This undertaking succeeded to shake the great truths of Western civilization: the division of property, the divine right of kings and the place of religious tolerance in an age of state sponsored religion. New ways of looking at the world were opened up before Europe.

However, contrary to expectation, this unprecedented interest in the Hebrew Bible and rabbinical interpretations did not encourage a forgiving approach to flesh and blood Jews (at least not at first). The belief was that one could not learn Talmud without the help of a Jewish teacher who was well-versed in the ancient tongue. This led to the rise of the professional Hebrew teacher across Protestant Europe with the posts being filled mostly by Jewish converts to Christianity.  The few openly-practicing Jews who taught the ancient language quickly learned what their Christian neighbors thought of them.

Such was the story of Jacob Barnet.


“Jacob the Jew”

With the arrival of the young Jew by the name of Jacob Barnet to the shores of England in 1610, quite a few Protestant scholars vied to take him under their wing. Barnet was indeed catch: an educated, courteous Jew from Italy, fluent in Latin and in Talmud.

In 1613, he met Isaac Casaubon, a recognized theologian and lecturer from Oxford. The two developed a deep friendship over their shared study of the Jewish texts in the sacred tongue.


Notes in Hebrew and in Latin written by Isaac Casaubon. The notes were from the joint study of Casaubon and Barnet. From the book by Anthony Grafton and Johanna Weinberg


Casaubon missed no opportunity to publicly praise Barnet, whether it was to professors at Oxford, the Archbishop of Canterbury, or even the king of England himself, King James I.

Gradually, Barnet began to feel the pressure being put on him to convert. His many acquaintances very much liked the possibility that a learned Jew of his caliber should recognize the truth of the Christian doctrine (in its Anglo-Protestant variation). Barnet struggled. He felt that such a move would surely distance himself from his family, and he also failed to see in what aspect the Christian religion was preferable to Judaism. Yet, he did eventually succumb to the pressure and agree to convert.

Jacob the Jew declared: “the blinders have been lifted from my eyes,” by which he meant the erroneous teachings of the rabbis which he had so diligently studied (and which the scholars around him had wanted to understand completely). His conversion ceremony attracted all the nobles of the realm, including the monarch himself foremost among them.


Portrait of King James I, 1605, attributed to John de Critz


His could not keep to his decision for long, and on the day of the conversion Barnet fled the city. He was arrested a few hours later and sent to prison. Professors and priests from Oxford used the opportunity to preach the Christian doctrine to the prisoner in his cell in an attempt to persuade him to change his mind and once again abandon the faith of his forefathers. If he did not, they made clear to him, he would be burned at the stake.

It was at this point that Casaubon intervened on behalf of his friend, who many times before he had affectionately referred to as “my rabbi.” He composed two letters to the authorities at Oxford, in which he asked that Barnet’s terms of imprisonment be eased and that his life be spared. To appeal to them, he used the common anti-Semitic language against his friend denouncing him as a “cunning and malicious Jew,” though he stressed that Barnet was entitled to repent his decision to convert in part because he was so entrenched in the world of Talmud that his mind was filled with the superstitious beliefs and lies disseminated in its pages. Casaubon’s words eventually reached the king who commanded that Barnet be expelled to France.


Isaac Casaubon by an unknown artist. The painting is in the National Portrait Gallery, London


Only with the execution of King James I’s son, Charles I, during the rule of Oliver Cromwell, were Jews at last allowed to return, and to live in public, as Jews in the kingdom (which had since become a republic).