I have been reading Jaroslav Pelikan’s Who’s Bible is It? in medical waiting rooms all last week. My wife will have another surgery this week. We were getting all the preliminary appointments for things like blood work and x-rays done.
I am going to skip lightly over some of his chapters. He has a chapter on the New Testament where he summarizes every one of the 27 books in it. He has a chapter about the Bible’s existence in Latin in the West, Greek in the East, Hebrew among the Jews, and the introduction of the Koran in Arabic. Thus the Bible both united and divided the peoples of the Book. Yet in the period before the Crusades and the Inquisition, there was more tolerance and understanding than many today would believe. Pelikan points out, for instance, that both the great Jewish scholar, Maimonides, and the great Eastern Orthodox scholar, John of Damascus, studied and wrote under the protection of Muslim rulers.
For the most part though, Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived in intellectual and linguistic isolation from each other. Christians in the Catholic West did not speak or read Greek. The Bible, for them, was a Latin book. Even Plato, they had only a bit of in bad Latin translation. The Renaissance was largely a recovery of Greek in the Christian West. As we go off to attend Renaissance festivals (the one in Kansas City always starts on Labor Day weekend), we might think of the Renaissance as an end to the intellectual and linguistic isolation of Western Europe.
In the late 15th century, scholars from Constantinople became refugees in Rome, Venice, and Florence. This brought Greek learning to the cultural centers of the West. Art and literature got fresh sources in the classic greek myths and epics. Also, Christian thought got renewed. We tend today to see the Renaissance as sort of anti-church or as a pagan renewal, but the statistics of publishing during the era show that the majority of new writings were Christian.
Many scholars began reading the New Testament in the original Greek. Once scholars began to read the New Testament in Greek, many also wanted to read the Tanakh in Hebrew. So in Biblical studies, there was a return to the sources. The recovery of Hebrew by Christian scholars not only let them read the Hebrew scriptures, but gave them access to a wide range of Jewish writing—the Talmud, the Mishna, and the Kabbalah.
Pelikan talks about something that I was reading several months ago in Kendall Soulen’s work on the names of God. Luther and other Protestants drew upon Jewish mysticism. The Tetragrammaton is scholarly jargon for YHWH, the Hebrew name of God.
“The mysterious, ineffable, and therefore unpronounceable, Tetragrammaton, which was a central preoccupation of the Jewish Kabbalah as the key to the metaphysics of the Bible and to the ultimate mystery of Being, could now be manipulated in such a way as to become a key to the distinctively Christian version of that ultimate mystery, the doctrine of the Trinity” (p. 147).
What arose during the Renaissance was biblical humanism. This was especially displayed by the Dutch scholar, Erasmus. But the Protestant Reformation and the renewal of Catholicism at the Council of Trent were the main historical outcomes.