Jewish Historiography

The emergence of Jewish history--part two.

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De  Rossi made extensive use of contemporary methods of critical philology. He compar­ed, for example, the various talmudic traditions pertaining to the death of Titus with versions recounted by Roman historians and with ancient legends relating the fate of evil kings. Anxious to prove that there existed an intermediary Aramaic version of the Old Testament, between the original Hebrew and the Greek Septuagint, De Rossi relied on both Jewish and non-Jewish literary sources, as well as on coin inscriptions.

It seemed quite natural for him to employ the methods developed by Renaissance philologists, for in doing so he was simply trans­cribing to a new field of knowledge an approach that had been prevalent among "enlightenment” circles of medieval Jewish scholars. An attituderepeatedly expressed during the course of the Maimonidean controversy was that "one should listen only to the truth"; in other words, so long as a philosophical proposition was valid, its author's identity was irrelevant.

Jewish thin­kers in the Middle Ages shared the prevalent notion that knowledge was accumulated pro­gressively,that it could be examined and improved indefinitely--a conception implying the relative superiority of the "moderns." Hence medieval Jewish thinkers did not hesi­tate to regard talmudic information on sciences such as astronomy and mathematics as obsolete. Similarly, De Rossi was prepared to reject chro­nological data provided by talmudic texts as mere ignorant speculation. The rigid demarca­tion drawn by Renaissance humanists between fable and historical fact enabled De Rossi to acknowledge the fictional nature of tales such as "Titus' punishment." Defining such legends as figments of the imagination did not, however, preclude the possibility of exploiting them for moral and didacticpurposes.

Historiography as we know it today came into being in the early nineteenth cen­tury. The pioneers of modern Jewish studies, whose earliest works appeared between 1820 and 1840, were as closely affiliated with the general renaissance of historical research as their sixteenth‑century predecessors. Accusa­tions were leveled in recent decades against the early representatives of nineteenth‑century Wis­senschaft  des Judentums ("Science of Judaism")--to the effect that their aptitude lay in collecting and listing sources rather than in critically ana­lyzing them, or that they were overly‑concerned with individual historical figures, and further that they failed to integrate the methods of the new science of history. Such accusations were in fact too harsh and too hasty. The private correspondence of some of these nineteenth century Jewish historians-‑Leopold Zunz, Heinrich Graetz, Moritz Steinschneider--evokes a great deal of admiration for their notable enterprise.

Laboring in social isolation and always in dire financial straits, they invested tremendous efforts in editing and publishing ancient Hebrew texts which they regarded as monuments of Jewish culture. But the universities rejected their works, and they were ignored by contemporary German Jewry. Nevertheless, the role of this scientific historiography was, all in all, more significant than is generally assumed, for it provided, to say the least, important new tools which were vital for the development of Jewish collective memory.

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Eli Barnavi is the Director of the Morris Curiel Center for International Studies and a Professor of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University