Religion Booknotes

“I have always loved the Holy Tongue”
Isaac Casaubon, the Jews, and a Forgotten Chapter in Renaissance Scholarship

Anthony Grafton and Joanna Weinberg
Harvard University Press, $35, 392 pp.


The conventional view of the sixteenth-century humanists is that they reached back toward pagan antiquity as part of a revolt against Christianity. In fact, the humanist turn, especially in the north of Europe, was an effort to repristinate the church by returning to the original languages of Sacred Scripture and of the Greek and Latin church fathers. Call it reform through philology. Hence the rise in the sixteenth century of the “trilingual schools,” where the study of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin was linked to the study of Scripture and patristic commentary.

In “I have always loved the Holy Tongue” Anthony Grafton and Joanna Weinberg tell part of this story by focusing on the scholarly career of the French Huguenot Isaac Casaubon (1559–1614), who was both a prodigious scholar of classical antiquity and an eager student of Hebrew. Casaubon was interested in the Veritas Hebraica for several reasons: he was passionate about languages; he wanted to read the original versions of Scripture; he thought that an understanding of Judaism’s own sources cast light on the New Testament; and, not coincidently, he thought that Jewish learning was an apt instrument for the religious controversies of the day. In fact, the latter motivation was critically important to his vast polemical work against Cesare Baronio, the Italian Oratorian whose Annales was meant to show the strict conformity of Roman Catholic practices to those of the New Testament church.

It is difficult to overstate how much energy Casaubon devoted to his studies. In one month in 1597 he read and took notes on nearly seven hundred folio pages of Basil of Caesarea in Greek. Of course, as Grafton and Weinberg note, his scholarship was hardly dispassionate. The study of early Christianity was a battlefield upon which Catholics like Baronio and Reformers like Casaubon skirmished.

Most of what the Christian Hebraists of the period learned about Judaism came from contact with Jewish converts to Christianity. (The exception was Casaubon’s friend and mentor Joseph Scaliger, who read the Talmud with a Jewish scholar in Leiden.) One must not imagine, then, that the humanists’ interest in Judaism had anything to do with interreligious dialogue. Still, this book does show how the great humanists of the time slowly came to understand that the New Testament witness to Christ could not be understood apart from its original Jewish context. Likewise, to really understand Judaism the humanists knew they could not simply borrow a few facts from Maimonides; they had to go back much further into the tradition, studying Jewish belief and practice from Josephus to the development of the Talmud. The humanists were slowly learning a lesson that would change the study of Scripture and theology forever: To understand a religion deeply, one needs to understand not only its doctrinal formulatons, but also its history—along with the languages in which that history is recorded.


A Jesuit in the Forbidden City
Matteo Ricci, 1552–1610

R. Po-chia Hsia
Oxford University Press, $57.50, 386 pp.


The Jesuit Matteo Ricci, contemporary with Casaubon, was also an extremely well educated humanist. The training he received from the Jesuits in the classics, mathematics, and science would serve him well when he went to China as a missionary.

The basic facts of Ricci’s life are well known. He labored to master Chinese and succeeded so well that he could hold his own with members of the mandarin class, who attained their distinction via competitive examinations in the Chinese classics. R. Po-chia Hsia, author of A Jesuit in the Forbidden City, is able to retell Ricci’s story within the context of Chinese history. Ricci was one of the few early missionaries to get beyond the borders of the trading cities on the coast. With little in China’s heartland to remind him of Europe, he could not shield himself from a totally alien culture; he had to adjust to it.

When Ricci and his companions first went to China, they adopted the robes of Buddhist monks, but Ricci later decided that Buddhism was not a suitable point of entry for his missionary work. Instead, he studied Confucius, and found that approach more fruitful: for one thing, it allowed him to speak with the ruling mandarin class, whose studies involved the Confucian canon. While studying Confucius, Ricci was able to teach Western mathematics and science. Among the Western inventions he introduced to the Chinese was the use of three-point perspective in painting.

Ricci wrote a number of books in Chinese (including a translation of Euclid), but his most famous and interesting work is The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven. Written as a dialogue between a Westerner and a Chinese scholar, this work presents an argument for the existence of one God and criticizes both Buddhism and Daoism, the latter for its account of the world arising out of nothingness. Hsia wisely devotes an entire chapter to this book.

In the final chapters of A Jesuit in the Forbidden City, Hsia does two important things. First, he outlines Ricci’s continuing legacy in subsequent Chinese history; second, he outlines the later critique of Ricci’s approach from within the Western church, touching on the famous “Rites Controversy,” in which Rome curtailed the Jesuits’ early efforts to inculturate the liturgy for Asian converts. Hsia ends his book with an interesting survey of Riccean scholarship in both China and the West.   

A Jesuit in the Forbidden City is not intended for the neophyte. The author assumes that the reader already knows something about China’s history—as well as its geography (I found I needed a good map just to follow the text). Despite its daunting erudition, the book is well worth any effort it requires on the part of the reader. It complements earlier work on the subject by Vincent Cronin and Jonathan Spence. As for Ricci himself, he belongs in the pantheon of great Catholic missionaries not only for his zeal, but for his erudition, his vision, and his sheer courage. A Jesuit in the Forbidden City is a fitting tribute to him and his work.


The Art of Dying and Living
Kerry Walters
Orbis, $20, 272 pp.


In recent decades, there has been a raft of books about exemplary deaths. Such books are part of a long tradition that goes back to the medieval ars moriendi. In The Art of Dying and Living,  philosopher Kerry Walters of Gettysburg College offers us portraits of Christian men and women whose deaths were as much a model of faith as their lives were. As Walters points out in an introductory chapter, the virtues required for dying well are really an extension of the virtues needed to live well: one’s dying is (or should be) the “capstone” of one’s life.

Walters examines the lives of six Christians and one fellow traveler of Christianity. Some of those Walters writes about had a very clear picture of the final stage of their lives. Both Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Jonathan Daniels undertook ministries in the face of murderous enemies, both knew they were risking their lives, and both were martyred—one at the hands of the Gestapo, the other by opponents of the civil-rights movement. John Paul II knew of the inexorable decline of his health but stayed in office as a witness to fidelity. Finally, Caryll Houselander, a hero of the pre–Vatican II Catholic revival who is too little read today, died in 1954, three years after first being operated on for cancer. In one of her last works, Houselander described death thus: “This is the breaking of the bread, the supreme moment in the prayer of the body, the end of the liturgy of our mortal lives.”

Readers reflecting on their own death or grieving the death of a loved one may wish to read this book in tandem with the late Henri Nouwen’s Our Great Gift: A Meditation on Dying and Caring (1994). Walters’s examples are well chosen, but I couldn’t help thinking of other heroic Christian deaths while reading his book, some of them suggested by the text itself. For example, while in the Dutch transit camp of Westerbork, Etty Hillesum—whose story Walters tells—noted that she saw Edith Stein and Stein’s sister Rosa, both waiting, like Hillesum herself, for the trains that would take them to Auschwitz.


Newman and His Contemporaries
Edward Short
Continuum/T&T Clark, $32.95, 544 pp.


In Newman and His Contemporaries Edward Short retells John Henry Newman’s story in relation to the people who knew him well and those he influenced. Newman expressed sorrow that he did not succeed in persuading some of his closest Tractarian collaborators—above all, John Keble and Edward Pusey—to enter the Catholic Church with him. Other prominent figures in Victorian England who had little sympathy for Newman’s religious judgments followed his career with a mixture of admiration and bewilderment. Short writes about some of these figures—William Gladstone, Matthew Arnold, William Makepeace Thack-eray—showing how they responded to their own crises of faith and how they came to worry that Newman and his followers, in their turn toward Rome, might be jeopardizing an important part of what it meant to be English.

What Short doesn’t say much about is how Newman was regarded by his fellow Catholic clerics. We know that Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman was ambivalent about Newman and that Cardinal Henry Manning was distrustful, and perhaps also jealous, of him. Most of the Irish bishops met Newman’s proposal to start a Catholic university in Dublin with incomprehension. Newman’s conversion was a coup for Rome and especially for the Catholic Church in England, but his subsequent influence on Catholicism in England and Ireland was not always welcomed by the Catholic establishment.

Short has an interesting chapter on American reactions to Newman. (Some Episcopalians tilted toward a sympathetic view of Rome—one bishop actually converted—while others remained resolutely hostile.) But Short’s main achievement is in showing how broad an impact Newman had on the British society of his day. His views on religion, education, and public life were carefully weighed, if not always welcomed, by people tormented by the erosion of faith in nineteenth-century England. Reflecting on Newman’s impact on Oxford, Gladstone once said that one could find no parallel in university life unless one went “back to the twelfth century or the University of Paris.”

Short’s fine book is closely argued, well researched, and very readable. He provides nearly a hundred pages of dense endnotes and a capacious if selective biographical index. He ends the book with a selection of short passages from Newman’s work titled “Newman on Newman.” But Newman’s prose is best appreciated in whole sermons and books. Readers not already familiar with his work would be wise to spend some time reading his Parochial and Plain Sermons before sitting down with this book, since only a sense of Newman’s power as a writer will make Short’s account of his tremendous influence intelligible.

Published in the 2012-01-13 issue: 

Lawrence Cunningham is John O'Brien professor of Theology (Emeritus) at the University of Notre Dame.

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