Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Cornelius Bertram and Carlo Sigonio: Christian Hebraism's First Political Scientists (*)

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Cornelius Bertram and Carlo Sigonio: Christian Hebraism's First Political Scientists (*)

Article excerpt


Cornelius Bertram, a French Protestant from Switzerland, and Carlo Sigonio, an Italian Catholic, each produced a book at roughly the same time in the late sixteenth century on an analysis of the ancient Hebrew polity in light of biblical and extrabiblical sources, using similar methodologies. They combined the renewed interest in antiquity that was characteristic of the Renaissance with the strong emphasis on biblical and religious study that characterized the humanism of northern Europe. The basis of their respective analyses was that classical conceptions of the forms of government as articulated by Aristotle and Polybius--monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, as well as their perversions--could he applied to how the Jews governed themselves in antiquity.

It is well known that the focus on antiquity that was at the heart of the Renaissance also included an interest in Hebraic studies on the part of Christian scholars. These studies emphasized studies in mysticism and also Hebrew grammar and philology in order to understand the Hebrew scriptures better. This interest was accelerated by the impact of the Protestant Reformation. (1) Two sixteenth-century scholars, Cornelius Bonaventure Bertram (1531-94), a French Protestant who emigrated to Geneva, and Carlo Sigonio (1520-84), a Catholic from Italy, had an interest in Hebraic studies that differed from that of other Christian hebraists. Each used classical Greek political theory to define the nature and structure of the ancient Hebrew polity as portrayed in the Bible, the Apocrypha, rabbinic sources, and other ancient Jewish and non-Jewish authors, such as Josephus, Philo of Alexandria, St. Augustine, and other church Fathers. These and other extrabiblical sources were employed to understand the ancient Jewish po lity more within the framework of political science and history than that of theology.

Cornelius Bonaventure Bertram

Bertram dedicated De Politia Judaeorum, tam Civilis quam Eccksiatica iam inde a suis primordiis, hoc est ab Orbe Condito to his teacher, Theodore Beza, and thanked him for his assistance in preparing the work. It was first published by Eustathius Vignon in Geneva in 1574 and went though several editions thereafter. Sigonio's De Republica Hebraeorum was first published in 1582 in Bologna by Giovanni Rossi with a dedication to Pope Gregory XIII. Sigonio's claim that this was a hitherto neglected area of study is belied by the earlier publication date of Bertram's book. (2) Furthermore, Bertram was aware of Sigonio's interest in this subject and wanted to discuss or debate the topic with him. Having received no reply from Sigonio, Bertram went ahead with his own work without further reference to Sigonio. (3) Sigonio never mentioned Bertram in his work. Given the religious conflicts in Europe at the time, it should not strike us as unusual that nearly every topic relating to Christianity--in this case, its Jewis h origins--should have a Protestant and a Catholic writing on the same subject if for no other reason than to insulate their respective faithful from the ideas of their religious antagonists. Bertram was in the company of the leading Protestant scholars of his day, and Sigonio remained a staunch Catholic throughout this tumultuous period, but neither of them used his work to engage in religious polemic.

The respect both men had for Jewish learning should not obscure the fact that they included in their respective works all the usual cannards about the Pharisees, deicide, and the idea that Christianity is the fulfillment of Judaism through Jesus' messianism, among others. (4)

These books were used in the works of later Christian humanist jurists and political scientists, such as Petrus Cunaeus (1586-1630) from the Netherlands and the British polymath John Selden (1584-1654). In his notice to the reader at the beginning of his De Republica, Cunaeus said that his work was designed to fill in the gaps of Sigoino's and Bertram's books, (5) although his work went considerably beyond that. …

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