You are here

Praeparatio Rabbinica: Zacharias Frankel (1801–1875), the Wissenschaft des Judentums, and the Septuagint

Theodor Dunkelgrün

Cambridge University

Scholars of Mediterranean antiquity, Judaism and early Christianity have long been fascinated by the encounter between Greek and Hebrew in the ancient world and in Hellenistic Alexandria in particular. The very term “Hellenist” was coined as early as the turn of the 17th century, when humanists debated whether the Greek of the Septuagint, of Philo, of Josephus and the New Testament reflected the distinct Jewish dialect of a bilingual culture, an idiom redolent with Hebraisms, starkly different from that of Periclean Athens (Hardy 2012). Since the reconfiguration of classical philology in the early 19th-century as a distinctly Greco-Roman tradition, the study of this Hebrew-Greek encounter and the confluence between religions, cosmologies, laws, language, and texts that it comprised, has been left largely to Christian theologians and students of Jewish antiquity. More recently, however, historians of classical and biblical scholarship have devoted renewed attention to the practical dynamics of two textual traditions meeting, and especially the impact of Homeric scholarship as practiced in Alexandria on the translation and exegesis of the Hebrew Bible (Niehoff 2011). We are learning more and more about the ways in which the scholarly toolbox forged by the Alexandrian critics for the study of Homeric materials was adopted and elaborated for the study of Biblical literature and history by Jewish scholars in the Ptolemaic period such as the critics Demetrius and Aristobolus, by Philo and then by bilingual and trilingual early Christian scholars (Origen, Eusebius, Jerome) in the learned centres of late antique Palestine (Grafton and Williams 2006).

This paper aims to explore a little-known 19th-century chapter in this history of scholarship, when the emergence of the historical-critical study of Jewish history and literature -- the so-called Wissenschaft des Judentums -- kindled scholarly interest in pre-modern Jewish history. Much of this interest focused on the rich history of Jewish science and culture in Islamic Spain. Scholars of this movement have shown how the myth of a medieval Spanish Golden Age served 19th-century Jewish scholars as an ideal of cultural symbiosis between Judaism and a wider civilization of science and poetry, and a model for their own precarious negotiations of tradition and modernity (Schapkow 2011). A few 19th-century scholars of the Wissenschaft were as fascinated by Alexandria as they were by Andalusia. The study of Hellenistic literature served them -- the first generation of Jewish scholars to study Classics at German universities -- as a model of their own entry into a non-Jewish world of scholarship, while German philhellenism lent that encounter further depth and perspective.

This paper will study the Greek scholarship of Zacharias Frankel (1801–1875), founding director of the Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau and founding editor of the Monatschrift für Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums, the flagship journal of the movement. Frankel is commonly seen as the moderate member of the triumvirate of German-Jewish moderns, between the orthodox Samson Raphael Hirsch and the Reformed Abraham Geiger (Brämer, 2000). Yet he was also an accomplished scholar of Greek. Most 19th-century students of the Greek Bible were Christian scholars theologically committed to a supersessionist reading according to which the Septuagint passed from Synagogue to Church and the emergence of Hellenistic Judaism itself served as Preparatio Evangelica. Frankel’s expertise in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek and his commitment to historico-critical philological principles allowed him to do what the classicists couldn’t and the theologians wouldn’t: to rediscover the Septuagint as the central text of an ancient Greek-speaking Jewish culture, and to read it as a historical witness, not to the matrix from which Christianity emerged but to pre-rabbinic Judaism (De Lange 2013). In studying Frankel’s Hellenism, I intend to explore the confluence of Jewish theology and Greek philology in the 19th century and a Rabbi-philologist’s self-conscious study of a similar confluence in Alexandrian antiquity.

Session/Panel Title

Philology's Shadow II

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy