Jewish Traditions in Christian Contexts: Hebrew Texts in Worcester Cathedral Library

Finding different Western editions of sacred Christian texts in a cathedral library is not overly extraordinary. At Worcester, we have a medieval English language Wycliffe Bible, a Dutch book of hours, a Gospel in French, and an edition of the Latin Vulgate produced in Italy. But to discover here books, from as early as the 16th Century, containing parts of the Hebrew Bible, and these annotated with the critical apparatus of Jewish tradition, seems to be very surprising.


Frontispiece to one of our Hebrew books. To a Westerner, it of course comes at the ‘back’ of the book. Image copyright The Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

We have three such books, containing Hebrew text from some of the minor  prophets, and commentated on by targumim. The targumim are elaborated explanations written by Jewish scholars (in our examples: Solomon ben Isaac, Abraham ben Ezra, and David Kimhi). In addition to that, we can we can see the masorah parva and magna at the margin of the Hebrew text. These were added by the Masoretes (a group of Jewish scribe-scholars). They added vowel points and accents to the original consonantal Hebrew text (to show the correct pronunciation), while noting marginal references and statistical information about the appearances of certain words within the text.


Hebrew text with added commentary. Image copyright The Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

What makes the appearance of these books unusual in an English cathedral library is their dates of publication: two from 1556 and one from 1641. Although a Jewish community had been established in England as early as the 11th Century, their expulsion was ordered by an edict of Edward I in 1290, in a bid to extort money and pander to popular prejudices. Almost no Jews resided in England between then and 1656, when their re-settlement was permitted by Oliver Cromwell. Amongst gentiles, very few people in England would have had knowledge of the Hebrew language. No Hebrew language textbook was available until Johann Reuchlin published his Rudimentia Hebraicis in Germany in 1506 – and this was hardly a sensational bestseller.


Jerusalem is a sacred city for both Jews and Christians. Despite their shared Abrahamic cultural heritage, relations between the two communities have not always been cordial. Image copyright The Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Unsurprisingly, our books were not published in England. The two editions of 1556 were published by Robert Estienne in Geneva . Estienne published nearly 500 editions of Biblical texts and classical and Patristic authors. Whereas he is most famous for his first print of the bible divided into standard numbered verses, his Latin bible version from 1527/8 is more remarkable, because he compared the Vulgate with different ancient manuscript copies, whereby a collated bible version was generated. In the following years his difficulties with theological censors and scholarly doctrine increased and he became a Protestant, which later forced him to emigrate to Geneva. The example of the collated Bible version shows his special interest in text traditions and may explain why he published the Hebrew Bible with Jewish commentaries. Moreover he had close contact with the reformer John Calvin in Geneva, which acquainted him with Protestant textual interpretation, which can be summarised by Martin Luther’s slogan: sola scriptura. For Protestants, all necessary knowledge for salvation was to be found in the scriptures alone, rather than the accumulation of dogma and tradition.


Robert Estienne’s Frontispiece. Image copyright The Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

While the reformation sparked a renewed intellectual interest in scriptural criticism and the Hebrew tradition, and our books are evidence of this, it would take centuries more before Jews could settle in England without general prejudice.

Konstanze Kupski


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