The Insight of Unbelievers: Nicholas of Lyra and Christian Reading of Jewish Text in the Later Middle Ages

The Insight of Unbelievers: Nicholas of Lyra and Christian Reading of Jewish Text in the Later Middle Ages

The Insight of Unbelievers: Nicholas of Lyra and Christian Reading of Jewish Text in the Later Middle Ages

The Insight of Unbelievers: Nicholas of Lyra and Christian Reading of Jewish Text in the Later Middle Ages

Synopsis

In the year 1309, Nicholas of Lyra, an important Franciscan Bible commentator, put forth a question at the University of Paris, asking whether it was possible to prove the advent of Christ from scriptures received by the Jews. This question reflects the challenges he faced as a Christian exegete determined to value Jewish literature during an era of increasing hostility toward Jews in western Europe. Nicholas's literal commentary on the Bible became one of the most widely copied and disseminated of all medieval Bible commentaries. Jewish commentary was, as a result, more widely read in Latin Christendom than ever before, while at the same moment Jews were being pushed farther and farther to the margins of European society. His writings depict Jews as stubborn unbelievers who also held indispensable keys to understanding Christian Scripture. In The Insight of Unbelievers, Deeana Copeland Klepper examines late medieval Christian use of the Hebrew Bible and Jewish interpretation of Scripture, focusing on Nicholas of Lyra as the most important mediator of Hebrew traditions.

Klepper highlights the important impact of both Jewish literature and Jewish unbelief on Nicholas of Lyra and on Christian culture more generally. By carefully examining the place of Hebrew and rabbinic traditions in the Christian study of the Bible, The Insight of Unbelievers elaborates in new ways on the relationship between Christian and Jewish scholarship and polemic in late medieval Europe.

Excerpt

In the year 1309, three years after the French king Philip the Fair had expelled the Jews from royal France, in a year that saw the burning of three wagonloads of Hebrew books at the Place de Grève in Paris, Nicholas of Lyra (c. 1270–1349), an important Franciscan Hebraist and Bible scholar, determined a quodlibetal question at the University of Paris asking whether it was possible to prove the advent of Christ from Scriptures received by the Jews. If this essence of Christian truth could be proved by Jewish sacred text, Nicholas wrote, then it seemed “unlikely that the Jews, with so many clever men, exceptionally learned in Scripture among them, would have remained so long in their error.” Nicholas’s response rehearsed traditional Christian prooftexts but also incorporated extensive engagement with alternative Jewish interpretations of those texts. He ended the question by offering a trio of explanations for persistent Jewish unbelief in the face of what he had presented as overwhelming evidence. Destined to become one of the most widely circulated scholastic questions of thousands determined at the university—the text eventually found its way into hundreds of manuscript copies in a variety of textual settings and later came into print in well over two dozen editions—Nicholas’s question reflected the challenges he faced as a Christian Bible scholar determined to exploit rabbinic literature during an era of increasing suspicion of and hostility toward Jews and Jewish texts in western Europe. Nicholas drew from Jewish traditions in his biblical exegesis more systematically than any Latin Christian scholar since Jerome, and he did so at a time when Christian patience with Jewish resistance to Christianity was waning. Hebrew text (and ancient and modern rabbinic interpretation of it) stood at the heart of Nicholas’s commentaries in both the Old and New Testaments. in order for his exegetical program to work, Nicholas had to assert the validity of rabbinic interpretation of Scripture as a means of understanding the Christian literal sense while at the same time addressing the error of those rabbis whose insight he so clearly admired. Taken in its entirety, Nicholas of Lyra’s work represents both the culmination of a two centuries-long tradition of medieval Chris-

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