Like Angels on Jacobs Ladder: Abraham Abulafia, the Franciscans, and Joachimism

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Syriac specialists, not surprisingly, concern themselves in general with the language, literature and history of the Eastern Churches. They have not given extended consideration to the reception of Syriac language and culture in the West. That is not to say that such topics have been ignored, merely that the field has not yet been fully worked. But Semitists working on the Early Modern period and not on the Old Testament or its 'World' are still rather rare, certainly in the United Kingdom, and the story of these bibles has not yet been told with any degree of completeness.

Early Modern historians, on the other hand, rarely have the necessary interest or competence in oriental languages to attempt an account of oriental philology in their period. I hope to be able to persuade them that the story of the printed editions of the Syriac New Testament is an interesting one, and that, far from being a mere recondite footnote to a story about something else, it is in fact an index of a broader ideological and cultural stance that was not marginal in its significance.

I have endeavoured below to explain the editio princeps of The distinctive nature of that Orientalism has not previously been used to explain the features of the editio princeps. Nor has it been appreciated that this distinctive world-view is characteristic of all sixteenth-century Catholic editions of the Syriac New Testament. My reconstruction of this world-view thus forms a necessary prolegomenon to a longer account of all sixteenth-century Catholic editions that has already been written and appears as a companion volume to this: The Kabbalistic Scholars of the Antwerp Polyglot Bible.

These men are not unknown to contemporary historians, though the story of their sustained cooperation on the production of Syriac bibles has not previously been told. The consistent presence behind all these bibles, in both linguistic and typographic expertise, was however Guillaume Postel and though his own sense of mission was to develop to a point of such singularity that he was most conveniently treated as insane, he may be fairly said to have both inspired and enabled the Syriac editions of the others.

I believe the full significance of Postel's role is made clear here for the first time. The importance of Postel for the production of the Antwerp Polyglot and his influence upon the Paris edition brought out three years after his death when realised only strengthen the case made here.

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Syriac, though not an unreasonable expectation of a biblical scholar in the seventeenth century, was rare in the sixteenth and has never in any sense been popular. It was, of course, the achievement of the editions we are to examine to have facilitated the access of later scholars to the Syriac New Testament, its text and its language, though knowledge of very much else had to await the subsequent growth of Maronite scholarship in the West.

Nevertheless, Syriac studies in the sixteenth century had a missionary motive that was as strong as any more speculative or arcane interest. The intention behind the editio princeps was not only the provision of liturgical books for the Eastern Church, but also the evangelisation of Moslems. Widmanstetter as well as Tremellius and Guy Lefevre de la Boderie thought their work would serve to convert the Jews.

Though we do not have as much evidence for the reception of these editions as we would like, there is some material for us to review and enough to keep us attentive to the wider usefulness the editors hoped for their work.

I have characterised the work of the scholars who produced the Syriac New Testament editions in two ways both of which may need some explanation. I have generally referred to their productions on the one hand as a type of Orientalism, and on the other perhaps more controversially as kabbalistic. Orientalism is a familiar term. But it is not generally used in sixteenth-century studies, and there is no developed typology for this early period.

It has been my concern, however, to link the voyages of Postel the only one of our scholars to visit the East that were distinguished by the benefits and fruits of his extraordinary linguistic facility, and the arcane tradition that found the secrets of Aramaean antiquity from the time of Noah mediated through the local histories of Viterbo, Rome, Florence, France or Spain.

Characteristically the Oriental 'Other' was found not only in a Biblical past, but also in a local tradition. Postel then found this same local antiquity out East. The linking of the domestic past and Oriental present was based upon a Mediaeval Biblicism, but developed in his case by a well-informed acquaintance with contemporary Easterners and their language. Postel could cope with the languages, could describe with considerable detachment the singularities of the East, but still relegated the whole to share a mythical past that he would reintegrate in the proclamation of his Gospel—that of the One Shepherd and His One Flock.

It seems to me that there is a distinctive Orientalism here that is more than Mediaeval Biblicism, yet falls short of the objectivity of, say, Jones's descriptions of Sanskrit. Certainly it is worthy of our attention, however we seek to place it within a wider schema.

Although where it seemed necessary I have spoken of Jewish or Christian Kabbalah, I have generally used the same word of Jewish mystical writers and of Christians. I have after experimentation found it not possible to preserve, say, one spelling for Jewish books and authors and another perhaps a Latinised Cabala for Christians. I am aware the Kabbalah was originally Jewish, and that Christians borrowed Kabbalah with different degrees of erudition from Jews.

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I have no wish to deny the proprietary claims of Judaism, but neither do I seek to belittle the spiritual content of the Christian authors should anyone wish to claim there is one , even though they naturally understood kabbalistic texts in a sense radically different from that of their authors or Jewish readers.

Since the Israelites built their Tabernacle from the spoils of Egypt, we have been familiar with the place of both recuperation and bricolage in the construction of the sacred. Personally I have no investment in either Jewish or Christian reading. I would however argue that by any standard the knowledge ofJewish kabbalistic texts shown by Egidio da Viterbo, Widmanstetter, and Postel is extensive and far from trivial. They read, annotated and translated these difficult texts themselves. That their reading of these texts was a monument of Christian eisegesis—plunder, surely, from a Jewish perspective—is of mainly confessional moment.

The text becomes Christian once incorporated within a Christian worldview, just as we suspect passages of Canaanite poetry became Israelite by their incorporation in the canonical Psalter. The Christian Kabbalists however did not seek to conceal the Jewish origin of their texts, though they drew from that conclusions that were generally anti-Judaic.

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Sadly however we shall find that though a reverence for the arcane wisdom preserved in Hebrew books did practically seem to lead to more cooperative and constructive relationships with some Jewish scholars, not even Postel will be free of the dreary traditional Christian denigration of Judaism. What I insist upon here, however, is that Christian Kabbalah is a most significant component of the world-view of the Catholic scholars who produced the printed editions of the Syriac New Testament. This has not been systematically observed or described before, and whether or not one likes the labels, the reality is inescapable.

That point however serves merely to clear the ground for my major claim that what has been missing from previous accounts of printed editions of the Syriac New Testament is precisely their background in the varied kabbalistic speculations of their editors. The Orientalism that I have characterised as kabbalistic was not confined to Syriac studies. Indeed though its use by Christ and His Mother and the arcane content of the Aramaic tradition perhaps gave Syriac an edge over Arabic, one cannot but feel that, had they been able, our scholars would have given priority to the publication of an Arabic New Testament as better able to fulfil their missionary plans.

The knowledge of Arabic in the West grew apace with that of Syriac and the same scholars were involved. Widmanstetter we shall see was able to find a kabbalistic core in the Teachings of Islam, and Postel has recently been treated in a study that has given a proper technical assessment of his Arabic philology. I hope I have shown how these varied attempts are to be seen as characterised by the same kabbalistic motivation as early Syriac studies.

My concern to show that what I am describing is not merely a feature of Syriac studies but is of such a wider generality as to deserve being labelled as an Orientalism has led me to include some account of studies of these other languages. This entailed certain expansiveness both in the text and particularly in the footnotes.

I have sought to offer an initial characterisation in these areas that is not misleading, to indicate the most important evidence and to give essential bibliographic information while at the same time seeking to prevent the whole digressing into unreadability. I cannot claim consistent success, but do hope that the attempt to mark out a whole area will be serviceable to those whom I may convince that what I describe here is of more than marginal significance in the study of sixteenth-century Intellectual History and who may wish themselves to read in this area.

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The initial definition of my kabbalistic oriental scholars has been essentially pragmatic, being based upon the documentary evidence of what they wrote. Such an approach may give us some confidence that we are talking about something real rather than merely an imaginative construct.


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I have taken the burning of the Talmud in Rome in as indicative of a Papal policy towards Judaism and Kabbalah that was both different from that entertained by the High Renaissance Pontiffs and inimical to the work of our scholars. Certainly they thought and said so. We are thus able to use this change in the Curia's attitude to Kabbalah negatively to define the movement that interests us. It also explains to some extent the subsequent suspicions of heterodoxy that attach to the editors of the Syriac New Testament, and indeed why the Syriac New Testament was not first printed in Rome.

For a similar reason transcriptions of Syriac or Arabic names are ruthlessly anglicised and diacritical points suppressed. I regret that it has not been possible to offer translations of all passages in Latin or other European languages, but decisive considerations of space prevent this. I have however tried to ensure that the sense of the main text can be followed by the reader without ancient or oriental languages.

Like Angels on Jacob's Ladder: Abraham Abulafia, the Franciscans, and Joachimism

While this book was in the press J. It is now the authorative catalogue of Syriac types. Also A. The Spanish antecedents of the Polyglot and the role of Montano in its production are evaluated before the focus is turned upon the Northern Scholars who prepared the Syriac edition. Their motivation is shown, particularly in the case of Guillaume Postel, to derive from both Christian kabbalah and an insistent eschatological timetable. Common ground also appeared in their attraction to the apocalyptic tenets of Joachimism.

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Joachim of Fiore ca. Joachim's exegetic method rested upon scriptural concordances that revealed the Old Testament foreshadowing direct consequences for his age. Accordingly, he believed he was living in the fortieth generation of the Son and New Testament, the second status, soon to be followed by the forty-first and the opening of the sixth and seventh seals. The millennium and the defeat of the Antichrist were yet to come.