Thursday, May 12, 2011

Isaac Casaubon as a Hebraist

BMCR BOOK REVIEW on the 16th/17th-century Christian Classicist and Hebraist Isaac Casaubon:
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the books he read, in his separate notebooks, in his diary, in his many letters, and in other material most of which is unpublished. ...

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.

Isaac Casaubon also established that the Hermetic corpus consisted of late (i.e., Hellenistic-era) compositions and likewise reinforced the earlier conclusion by Johannes Opsopoeus that the Sibylline Oracles were Hellenistic. Earlier posts on Casaubon are here and here.