Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Cocceius and the Jewish Commentators

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Cocceius and the Jewish Commentators

Article excerpt

The case of Johannes Cocceius defies the commonplace that Leiden University (and perhaps post-Reformation, confessionalized Europe in general) turned away from humanist scholarship in the first quarter of the seventeenth century. In 1650 Cocceius (1603-69), a Bremen-born Oriental philology professor at Franeker, joined the Leiden theological faculty and wrote a treatise, Protheoria de ratione interpretandi sive introductio in philologiam sacram (De ratione). He praised such rabbinic exegetes as Rashi (1040-1105) and David Kimchi (ca. 1160-ca. 1235) in humanist terms for their erudition. At the same time the "new" Cartesian philosophy was taking hold in the arts faculty, and mathematics instruction was encroaching on scholastic formal logic.1 Leiden would become famous for Cartesianism, mathematics, and "Calvinist Copernicanism" in the second half of the seventeenth century, but Cocceius still worked in the tradition of advanced humanist scholarship that had made the institution famous in the sixteenth century.2

Leiden's earlier reputation was due in large part to the biblical humanist work of such Renaissance polymaths as Joseph Justus Scaliger (1540-1609) and Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), but by Cocceius's time Leiden theologians were subject to greater Church and State control. As Jonathan Israel and Edwin Rabbie have shown, in response to the controversy that surrounded Jacobus Arminius and his stand on predestination, the Synod of Dordrecht (Dort) drafted an anti-Arminian statement in 1619; any professor who did not sign was subject to exile from the republic in addition to dismissal from his post.3 Innovative theology, exegesis, and philology suffered as professors, fearing State and Church reprisals, turned to "dogmatic humanism." As Henk Jan de Jonge has explained, this meant that "almost all the theologians of seventeenth-century Leiden who concerned themselves with the explanation of the New Testament placed exegesis at the service of dogmatic objectives."4 Unlike his fellow Leiden theologians, Cocceius pursued biblical humanism and Christian Hebraism through the study of Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic-and he did so in a unique way. He was not the first to use Jewish commentaries and even Jewish post-biblical literature for the purpose of reconstructing the original Hebrew Bible, but he was innovative in praising rabbinic scholars as fellow humanists and in incorporating their scholarship into his Christological exegesis and philosophy. He did so, furthermore, not as an independent scholar or pastor or even as a professor of Hebrew; but as the holder of a university chair in theology at a confessionalized university in a century hostile to his brand of late humanism.

Although he came to Leiden as a theologian, Cocceius had impressive training as an Orientalist. He had studied with the famous scholar Sixtinus Amama (1593-1629) and polished his Hebrew and Aramaic by working with a Jewish tutor from Hamburg.5 While still a student at Franeker, Cocceius wrote a translation and commentary of the Talmudic tractate Sanhedrin. A few years later he began composing commentaries on the Pentateuch, and, by the time he arrived at Leiden, he had completed one lecture, series of lectures, or piece of writing on every book of the Old Testament. These commentaries were based not only on Cocceius's extensive knowledge of Oriental languages but also on his readings of medieval Jewish commentators. These were the same commentators that Cocceius would later praise in chapter eight of the De ratione.

These humanist achievements were much at variance with Cocceius's public persona as perhaps the most prominent Dutch Calvinist theologian of the seventeenth century. For approximately 100 years after his death in 1669 a faction of Leiden theologians calling themselves "Cocceians" battled the "Voetians," followers of Gisbertus Voetius, for the soul of the Dutch Church.6 At Leiden he lectured on the Pauline Epistles, a typical subject for a seventeenth-century Calvinist theologian, and he worked on his famous theological tract, the salvation-historical Summa doctrinae de foedere et testamento Dei (1648). …

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