Hebrew In Israel | Christians and Hebrew: An Historical Overview – Learn Torah

hebrew for christians, judaism and christianity, vulgate, latin vulgate, early christianity, bible translations,

Hebrew In Israel | Christians and Hebrew: An Historical Overview – Learn Torah

One comments

Several months ago I had the delight of writing a paper on the usage of Hebrew among Christians.  The paper itself was a summary of a detailed study we did on the Christian will to be exposed to the tanakh and other Jewish sources in their original language.  My thanks go out to Dr. Adi Portuguez for instructing me in the subject.  The following is a translation of the paper, with some additional sections.


Jews and Christians both follow the bible.  Jews predominantly use the Hebrew text while Christians base their translations on the Hebrew or predominantly on the Greek and Latin translations.  For the majority of the time, Christianity preferred to use the Septuagint or the Vulgata as their preferred version.  I say version because there are differences between the Hebrew text as presented in the Masoretic text and the Septuagint, which started as a Jewish Greek translation in the 3rd century BCE by the Jews of Alexandria but had undergone many versions and adaptations throughout the centuries.  The study done by Immanuel Tov in his book The Textual Criticism Of the Bible showed that the majority of texts found in the Dead Sea Scrolls (40%) resemble the Masoretic text, demonstrating that the preferred text at the time was a pre-Masoretic version.  However, versions that resemble the Septuagint and the Samaritan Pentateuch were also discovered.  Christians, in time, felt an inadequacy in using a translation and started searching for better versions.


Jerome (342-420 CE), is considered to be historically the first “Hebraist”.  Jerome left everything behind and came to the land of Israel in search of a better understanding of the bible.  He saw a great importance in understanding the geography of the land and traveled around Byzantine Israel to better understand the locations mentioned in the bible.  As part of his education he hired the services of a Jew named Bar Hanina, whom he hired to teach him Hebrew.  Jerome recounts in his memories the following:  “With what great labor and with what price it came to be that I studied at night in Jerusalem and Bethlehem from Bar Hanina, for he feared from the Jews.  And in my own eyes he seemed to be a second Nicodemus.”  (Hieronymus, Praefatio In Labrum Paralipomenon Ituxta LXX Interpretes, PL 29, col. 401)  It is interesting to point out that Bar Hanina’s fears repeated themselves in my personal experience as a teacher.  Needless to say, I’ve had people scorn me for teaching Hebrew and Tanakh to non-Jews. 

Jerome’s end goal was to create a Latin translation that would be readable for all Latin speaking people.  He named it the Vulgata from the latin word vulgar which means common.  It is not clear how well Jerome did in his studies and there is some question about his translating abilities.  However, Jerome can and should be considered the father of Hebrew study in Christianity.  The next time we hear about Christians interested in studying Hebrew is many centuries later.

12th – 13th Centuries, Europe

The will to study Hebrew reemerged with the changes in thought in the overall commentary of the bible.  Both Jews and Christians started abandoning the allegoric interpretations used both in church teachings and midrash.  Amongst the Jews, there were different commentators such as Rashi, Rabbi David Qimchi, of the famous Qimchi family, and Ibn Ezra, who searched after the simple meaning of the words.  At the same time Christians were doing the same thing and there was even the possibility that these commentators came in contact with one another.  There are signs that the commentary of Rashi was used as a reference in the Christian commentary of the St. Victor commentators such as Hugo of St. Victor and his student Andreas, who specifically mentions Jewish commentary.  It is possible that Andreas came in contact with Yosef Bechor Shor in Paris at a time when Paris was a hub for intellectuals.  Both scholars spent time there and it is possible that they studied with one another.

The Italian Renaissance

During the 15th Century, a renaissance came over Europe.  This renaissance started in the 14th century, however its full effect came into play in the 15th century and the rise of humanism.  Many Christian scholars showed interest in classic knowledge such as Greek, Greek studies, and anything from the ancient world, including Hebrew. 

The humanists were Christians, however they were not clergymen and therefore their interest in Hebrew and everything else was a break-off from the church control on knowledge.  These scholars independently developed critical methods which were not based on Christian thought, which made them free of Christian dogma.  This created a new scholarly social group who were able to return to ancient knowledge and continue the development which was prevented by the church.  It is important to point out that during this time the church was going through turmoil and was losing popularity.  These scholars saw themselves as possible redeemers of the faith, and saw a need for change. 

Hebraism In Early Modern History

With the rise of the renaissance, Christian scholars started renewing the need of knowing Hebrew out of a greater need to understand the Holy Scriptures firsthand and the context in which they were written.  At this time, the principle of “the Hebrew truth” became a dominant idea which argued that Jews have ancient knowledge which would help in understanding the bible.  This principle expanded even more throughout the years to a point where even esoteric writings became a source of interest to Christian scholars.  The early Hebraists started searching for manuscripts and worked to improve the version of the bible they had.  Church officials were also involved in this field and they started accumulating a vast Hebrew library out of the hope that it will help them understand the bible better.  It is important to note that it was also the hope that Jews would be attracted more to Christianity and might convert.  These scholars hired the help of Jewish scholars or Jews who converted to Christianity in order to learn Hebrew from them, and in time Hebrew turned into common knowledge with many Christian scholars. 

With the rise of Christians who knew Hebrew, the need for Jewish scholars dropped and Christians taught Hebrew among themselves.  (I will personally note that the detachment from Hebrew speakers might be the reason that, to this very day, we have some erroneous understandings presented by non-Jewish, non-Hebrew-speaking scholars.)  The scholars started writing grammar books and founded Hebrew schools in the Universities.  The development of the field created a movement of scholars who vigorously collected more and more manuscripts, expanding the Christian library on Hebrew immensely. 

A very good example of such a person was Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536) who compared the Latin version of the New Testament to the Greek.  The great achievement in this is the founding of the principle of textual criticism and the use of humanistic principles (i.e. criticism and reevaluation) in order to create his new translation.  Another very good example is Johannes Reuchlin (1455-1522).  Reuchlin studied Hebrew under Ya’acov Luants, the doctor of Kaiser Freidrich III, and later under Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno, the famous Jewish commentator.  He developed philological tools to study Semitic languages, and even wrote a book called The Foundations Of Hebrew which was based on a book on Hebrew grammar by Rabbi David Qimchi.  Reuchlin was also involved in the famous Peppercorn polemic where he and Martin Luther were accused by the Jewish convert to Christianity, Yohannes Peppercorn, of jewifying Christianity and endangering the Christian faith.  There were many other scholars who contributed to the study of Hebrew such as Ramon Llull and Roger Bacon who emphasized the need to learn languages.  In time other scholars such as Gesenius wrote books on Hebrew grammar and Gesenius to this very day is considered to be a fundamental book in the study of Hebrew.

Christian Kabbalah

As stated above, the interest in Hebrew went beyond just Hebrew and expanded into the esoteric writings of Judaism known as Kabbalah.  Kabbalah itself was a secretive study only presented before the most diligent students and therefore in Europe was a less known field for most Jews.  Ramon Llull was one of the first people to dive into this field.  He studied it very deeply and made it accessible to Christians.  His interest probably also came out of a will to understand spiritual principles as understood in Judaism but probably also for understanding Christianity.  At this time (15th century) the neoplatonic movement was at a rise and Christians were combining Plato’s ideas on spirituality together with Christian theology.  The product of this combination was a mystical way of thinking which combined Jewish Kabbalah and fitted very well into this mystical ideology.  It is very clear that Jews had no hand in teaching this material and many restrictions were placed in even teaching it amongst Jews.  Hence, it is a completely autonomous development in Christianity which Jews had no hand in. 

Two prominent characters in the development of Christian mysticism were Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) and Count Giovanni Pico Mirandola (1463-1494).  Pico saw kabbalah as a divine truth which was passed down to Moses and was preserved by the Jews.  Pico even said in his book on philosophical theses “There is no wisdom that proves the divinity of Christ with more certainty as magic and kabbalah do.”  This is obviously the voice of an extremist.  However, it also demonstrates the ideology behind the method of studying kabbalah—proving Christianity.  Reuchlin turned this principle in to a cornerstone of his methodology.  This change exposed more Christian scholars to kabbalah and with the advent of print, the access to this material increased even more.

At the same time, Jews were very conflicted over this expansion into Jewish “territory” and voices were heard in favor and against.  For example, Rabbi Naphtali Hertz and Rabbi Yehuda Ariel deModina both spoke in great favor of Christians who studied Hebrew.  With the Christian reformation, starting with Martin Luther and progressing into the Protestant movements, we see Hebraism become more and more of a mainstream.  Yohan Calvin (1509-1564) studied Hebrew and encouraged the study of Hebrew and Hebrew in the Calvinistic movement and the universities.  Yohans Forster (1496-1556) who was Hebrew teacher in Wittenberg, wrote a lexicon on the “correct” meaning of Hebrew words. 

Hebrew and the study of Hebrew literature expanded exponentially during the 16th and 17th centuries and had become a fundamental part of Christian education.  In time, universities developed schools for the study of Hebrew and by doing this created the entire vast world of Semitics.

One comments


June 19, 2017 at 5:30 pm

Thanks for sharing your paper yoel it was very informative. I hope you will continue to share many more papers…shalom.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Join My Group Bible Class TODAY!

The class is done in a virtual class room with multiple participants. We meet on Sundays at 11:45am US eastern, or 6:45pm Israel time. You do not need to know Hebrew for this class, and you also receive a recording of the classes every month. For the link and how to join, click the More Info Button to email us.