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Perspicue et fideliter conversus: Johannes Buxtorf the Younger’s Translation of the Guide of the Perplexed

Perspicue et fideliter conversus : la traduction du Guide des égarés par Johannes Buxtorf le Jeune
התרגום הלטיני של מורה נבוכים – יוהנס בוקסטורף הצעיר
Saverio Campanini
p. 133-153


La traduction latine du Guide des égarés par Johannes Buxtorf (1629) est étudiée dans ses aspects bibliographiques, linguistiques et paratextuels. La préface du traducteur est analysée en détail pour illustrer les intentions de Buxtorf en éditant cette œuvre philosophique médiévale. Le traducteur déclare que sa fonction principale sera d’aider les lecteurs à apprendre l’hébreu, même s’il savait parfaitement que le Guide avait été composé en arabe. L’un des motifs les plus intéressants de cette traduction est le parti pris idéologique quant à la fonction du Guide de concevoir et promouvoir un judaïsme « rationnel » compatible avec les idéaux protestants. Cette idée connaîtra une fortune durable auprès des hébraïsants chrétiens des siècles suivants.

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Texte intégral

  • 1 Cf. Kayserling, 1884. See also id., 1886, and Burnett, 2012, p. 148.

חפצתי להדפיס ס' מורה נבוכים בשלש לשונות
בשלש קולונאס או עמודים עברי וערבי ולטין
J. Roman1

  • 2 Campanini, 2013.
  • 3 Or rather paraneologism, since the term is already attested; cf. Bredehoft, 2014, p. 143.
  • 4 Genette, 1987; English translation: id., 1997.

1Since there are many ways to study a translation, it seems appropriate to state beforehand what the reader will not find in this contribution. I am not going to study Johannes Buxtorf the Younger’s translation of the Guide of the Perplexed from a strictly linguistic point of view. Such an undertaking would be certainly worthwhile, but I have preferred to focus not so much on the text, whose status is, both from a linguistic and an ideological viewpoint, very much debatable, but rather on its paratextual dimension. Paratexts are not only essential in orienting the reception of a given work, but affect significantly its very contents, as I have had the opportunity to show in the quite similar case of the Latin translation of Leone Ebreo’s Dialoghi d’amore. On that occasion, I could show that a rather marginal dimension of the Italian “original,” a short Kabbalistic excursus, became the main focus of the paratextual elements of the 1569 edition. This in turn influenced profoundly its perception as a major component of an ideal canon of Jewish philosophical and Kabbalistical literature of the Renaissance, bestowing a peculiar bent to the subsequent translations and adaptations of the Dialoghi, particularly the three Spanish translations, twice or three times removed from the original. Thus, the perception of that dialogic work as utterly “Kabbalistic” in nature was determined even before its characters (Filone and Sophia) could utter a single word.2 One could even go as far to say, in a generalizing vein, that the paratextual genre of the introduction, or haqdamah, in the case of Maimonides, affects subtly the text itself and deserves to be qualified as equally important as the long chain of translations it underwent, transposing the book and its growing prefaces from a given cultural environment to completely different ones. Although the modality of the commentary ex post is largely prevalent in Jewish culture, in the specific textual features of philosophy one witnesses the remarkable development of a different type of paratext, be it called “introduction,” “preface” or “preliminary remark.” The locus classicus of Rabbinical creativity is usually placed after any given statement, whereas philosophical texts are commented also a priori, before their own textuality can assess itself. As a consequence, the very text of the Guide fades in the distance both linguistically, since we are facing the translation of a translation, and from the perspective of its contents. From the very beginning, that is to say starting with the text authorized by Maimonides himself, the reader is engaged on a steeplechase, having to overcome a series of hurdles before the text, in itself a haqdamah to the reading of the Bible as a philosophical allegory, could display its meaning. The “authentic” meaning intended by the author cannot, therefore, claim to any possible form of directness, which in turn paves the way to all sorts of suspicious, indirect or Straussian hermeneutics. The present contribution will not be exempt, all awareness of its historical determination notwithstanding, from the inherent logic of pre‑emptive commentary. It will amount, at the utmost, to a further premise, comparing prefaces, delving into the inter‑paratextual (if the neologism3 should be allowed) dimensions of successive thresholds—to recur to the expression introduced by Gérard Genette4—towards a future study of Buxtorf’s Latin Maimonides in strictly linguistic terms.

  • 5 Johannes Buxtorf Jr., 1622.
  • 6 Rabbi Moses Majemonides, 1629.
  • 7 Johannes Buxtorf, 1629. Cf. now Dunkelgrün, 2016.
  • 8 Cf. Burnett, 1996, p. 139.
  • 9 Johannes Buxtorf, 1603.
  • 10 Johannes Buxtorf, 1610.
  • 11 At least according to the traditional Hebrew version of the text, as found, for example, in Moshe (...)

2The Hebraist Johannes Buxtorf the Younger (1599‑1664), son of the famous homonymous father (1564‑1629), had been a Wunderkind, according to his panegyric biographers, going to school at the age of four, with complete fluency in Greek, Latin and Hebrew but, as long as his father lived, did not emerge as an autonomous personality, turning down offers for teaching chairs at several universities, in order to help his father in his ever‑growing publishing activity. He authored, before 1629, a remarkable Aramaic and Syriac dictionary, rather an erudite compilation, which appeared in print, with a recommendation of Buxtorf Sr., in 1622.5 In the following years, Buxtorf Jr. took care of the voluminous production of his father and was involved in the celebrated dispute with Louis Cappel on the antiquity of the Biblical vowel points. Since Cappel, against his advice, had dared to challenge Buxtorf Sr.’s idea according to which the vowel points of the Bible were as ancient as Esdra, the son felt compelled to attack him, convinced as he was that the question was not a merely philological one, but that it endangered the very foundation of the protestant reformation, conceiving the Bible as the infallible and unshakable basis against the Papists, also known as the Catholics. This brief résumé of the importance of this noteworthy Hebraists does not do justice to his contributions to Jewish studies, but it will be sufficient, hopefully, for illustrating the principal characteristics of the introduction to his new Latin translation of the Guide of the Perplexed (Doctor Perplexorum).6 Started, as he writes, in the year 1622, it was completed for publication in 1629, shortly before the death of his illustrious father, in September of that year, and it legitimized academically his inheritance of the chair of Hebrew at the University of Basel. Earlier in that same year, Buxtorf Jr. prepared for print an appendix to the new edition of his father’s theoretical and practical introduction to Hebrew letter‑writing,7 which had been so praised and encouraged by scholars of such prestige as Johannes Drusius and Joseph Justus Scaliger8 since the publication of the Sylvula epistolarum hebraicarum, appeared for the first time in Basel (1603)9 and culminated with the publication of the Institutio epistolaris of 1610.10 The appendix to the new edition contains a selection of Hebrew letters, some of them by Maimonides, strictly related to the Moreh nevukhim: it is more than reasonable to assume that it was a by‑product of Buxtorf Jr.’s commitment to the translation of the Guide. In our context, a passage of the second letter is particularly interesting, as it was among the reasons for its inclusion in this appendix; since Buxtorf quotes from it also in the Preface to his edition of the Guide, one could imagine that this passage was not unrelated to the decision of translating that very book anew into Latin. It is a sentence from the letter written by Maimonides to his pupil Yosef ben Yehudah Ibn Aknin, to whom also the Guide is dedicated, concerning a dispute which aroused among the sages of Baghdad. Speaking of legal discussions, Maimonides writes:11

ולא תכלה ותאבד זמנך בפירוש ובמשא ובמתן של גמרא ואותם הדברים שכבר הנחתי מהם אבוד הזמן ומעט התועלת.

  • 12 The translation is found in Johannes Buxtorf, 1629, f. *3v.

Cave ne tempus tuum teras in expositione et operosa consideratione Gemarae, ego enim in illis multum temporis perdidi, et parum utilitatis hausi.12

Do not waste your time with commentary and controversies of the Gemara, since what I have gained [from this activity] was waste of time and small profit.

  • 13 Campanini, 2018.
  • 14 One should, nevertheless, consider that Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, a systematic code of the Jewish (...)

3It is somehow surprising that Buxtorf Jr. should emphasize this passage, being well known among his contemporaries, also due to the boasting of his proud father, as a young scholar, who, in his early years, had read from beginning to end not only the Mishnah, but the entire Babylonian Talmud. He also distinguished himself so far for having compiled an Aramaic dictionary intended at providing help to students of the Talmudim and the Targumim. Now, one can object that, in the tradition of Guillaume Postel’s pupil Guy Lefèvre de la Boderie, Buxtorf intended to provide a linguistic context for the Syriac Christian version of the Bible and to the language spoken by Jesus. Lefèvre de la Boderie, who contributed to the Antwerp Polyglot Bible, had underlined the importance of Syriac and Aramaic, including even the Zohar, which was left out by Buxtorf, for understanding Jesus’ original speech and thought.13 However, Buxtorf’s depiction of Maimonides as a champion of anti‑Talmudism, as paradoxical as it might seem,14 should be valued as a key for understanding his introduction to the Guide. I will contend, in fact—anticipating here my conclusion—that the purpose of his effort to re‑translate the Guide into Latin was, mainly if not exclusively, to shape an acceptable alternative to Talmudic Judaism for his Protestant readership.

  • 15 Jer. 3, 14.
  • 16 Buxtorf used the second edition (Cracow, 1580‑81) and not the first one (Constantinople, 1566), as (...)
  • 17 Isaac Israeli the Younger, cited indirectly through Zacuto.
  • 18 Quoted according to the second edition, Cracow, 1596 (the only one quoted in the Bibliotheca rabbi (...)
  • 19 Ed. 1596, f. 44.
  • 20 Published in Prague in 1592.
  • 21 See Johannes Buxtorf, 1708, pp. 188‑189: “Hebraicum exemplar excusum in Italia, Germanicum, quod h (...)
  • 22 Cf. Stanislawski, 1998, pp. 134‑149; see also Burnett, 1994, p. 281; id., 1996, p. 120; 284.
  • 23 Rabbi Moses Filius Meimon, 1555.
  • 24 “Theologiae in sua Relligione et fide Doctor fuit insignis, ac (quae laus ipsi tribuenda) Fabulis (...)

4Buxtorf opens his introduction by announcing that it will entail two main chapters: a brief description of the author’s biography and character, and a justification for his own endeavor, that is to say what motivated him to translate the Guide anew. With an elegant and quite aristocratic attitude, Buxtorf underlines that this information is all the more useful, since the readers of this sort of literature are few, and, as a confirmation, he quotes the proverbial expression of Biblical origin:15 ושנים ממשפחה אחד מעיר , “One of a city and two of a family.” The first section of the introduction is a rather classical biography of Maimonides, based on the available literature, in particular Buxtorf quotes the Sefer Yuasin by Abraham Zacuto,16 the book Yesod ‘olam by R. Isaac17 and the Shalshelet ha‑qabbalah18 by Gedaliah Ibn Yaḥya. As to his genealogy, he remarks that it is only quoted in secondary Hebrew literature, since in the printed editions of his commentary on the Mishnah, the text is not found. Buxtorf proceeds and refers one of the legends which soon formed the aura of miracle surrounding Maimonides’ life (his version is found in the Shalshelet ha‑qabbalah),19 but he introduces it with skepticism (sive historia sive fabula). The legend, which is in itself a wide‑spread topos, concerns Maimonides’ tardiness in learning. His father, we are told, beat him and called him scornfully “butcher’s son,” because of the profession of his maternal grandfather, although he was later to become the most remarkable intellectual personality of medieval Judaism and one of the most eminent in the entire Jewish history. Even the name of his master, Ibn Migash (pupil of Alfasi), has been contested, since Ibn Yaḥya related that he had to flee his father’s home, but the fact that Maimonides studied under Ibn Migash seems to be confirmed according to the Tsemah David by David Gans.20 Yet, Buxtorf continues with reference to Zacuto, this could not be the case for chronological reasons, since Ibn Migash died when Maimonides was only ten years old, therefore Gans must have meant that he studied Ibn Migash’s books. From this relatively marginal detail, one can observe the prevailing taste for chronologies, which is characteristic of the age of Scaliger. After having referred another legend, particularly awkward, since it relates about Maimonides studying 12 years in a cave, fleeing the Romans, a clear case of confusion with legendary material usually related to Rabbi Shim‘on ben Yoḥay, Buxtorf mentions Maimonides’ son Abraham and his letter to Joseph ben Gershon. From his words, it is quite clear that, in order to compile his appendix to the Institutio Epistolaris of his father, Buxtorf used the 1545 Giustiniani edition of the Letters of Maimonides. Then he proceeds to quote the Sheve Yehudah by Solomon Ibn Verga concerning Maimonides’ escape to Egypt and his being appointed as physician of the Sultan. As it is well known from the correspondent annotation of the Bibliotheca rabbinica,21 Buxtorf did not own a Hebrew edition of that work, but only its Yiddish translation, appeared in Cracow in 1591.22 The Shalshelet ha‑qabbalah reports moreover that, besides being fluent in Hebrew and Arabic, Maimonides learned Aramaic, Turkish and Persian, but also that he wrote extensively in Greek. Buxtorf seems to believe it, but prudently, he adds that the quotations from Greek authors might derive also from Arabic translations. Praising his learning in the field of mathematics, Buxtorf recalls also his Epistle on Astrology, and refers to its Latin translation, by the convert Isaac Levita, which appeared in Cologne in 1555.23 He does not miss the opportunity to praise, once more, Maimonides for being very close, in his refusal of astrology, to “our religion” (relligioni nostrae). The praise for his author reaches a climax, introducing the sentence quoted above from the letter to Rabbi Yosef ibn Aknin, in Buxtorf’s description of Maimonides as “a master of theology in his religion and faith truly excellent and (something that earns him a rightful praise) absolutely not inclined to the fables and the traditions of the Talmud.”24 The Mishneh Torah is seen, immediately afterwards, as the practical realization of his theoretical stance against Talmudic casuistry and linguistic chaos: a code of the Law overcoming the intricacies and confusion of legal discussions, in favour of synthetic aphorisms of crystalline clarity and expressed in a transparent Hebrew of classical purity.

  • 25 Johannes Buxtorf, 1629, f. *4v.

5The Shalshelet ha‑qabbalah is a vast reservoir of legendary material on Maimonides’ biography: Buxtorf diligently summarizes it, especially concerning his miraculous ability as a physician, only to conclude, on a rather skeptical note: de quibus judicium Lectori relinquimus.25 [on these things we leave the judgement to the reader]

  • 26 Ed. Mantua, 1574. Buxtorf possessed this edition and he praised the book and the author in later e (...)
  • 27 See Azariah de' Rossi, 2001, pp. 195‑196.

6Buxtorf’s introduction to the Guide is a singular mixture of credulity and a growing critical attitude, as it can be seen from the following legend, reported from Azariah de Rossi’s Me’or ‘enayim:26 among the books of Salomon Sasson in Ferrara, Azariah had found a notice concerning a travel made by Maimonides to Chalon‑sur‑Saône in Burgundy in order to collate his manuscript of the Bible with the scroll allegedly written by Ezra the scribe. Already Azariah was quite incredulous about this legend,27 but he admitted as possible that Maimonides, after having compiled his Mishneh Torah, could have visited France to correct his Sefer Torah. If the highly critical De Rossi was not inclined to totally refute this allegedly autobiographical notice, Buxtorf followed suite, but noticed that no other chronicle recorded this sensational claim.

  • 28 Johannes Buxtorf, 1629, f. **2v; cf. Johannes Buxtorf, 1613, p. 308: Buxtorf Father admitted that, (...)
  • 29 Johannes Buxtorf, 1629, p. 381 and ff.

7Concerning the literary production of Maimonides, Buxtorf relies on Zacuto and Ibn Yaḥya, adding only a reference to the Bibliotheca rabbinica of his father, gratified with the eulogy, in Hebrew, יחייהו צורו וגואלו) יצ’’ו), “may his Rock and his Redemptor let him live.”28 He recalls the polemical reaction of some rabbinical authorities against Maimonides’ suppression of the names of the Rabbis proposing different solutions to halakhic problems, and the latters’ apologetical letter to Rabbi Pinḥas, published also in Buxtorf’s appendix to the Institutio Epistolaris.29 He refers that Maimonides wrote the Guide at age 50, and five years later, the Iggeret tehiyyat ha‑metim.

  • 30 Published first as Eliyyah ayyim Ben Binyamin Da Genazzano, 1912; 2002
  • 31 It is interesting to note that in the Bibliotheca rabbinica, under אגרת חמודות, Buxtorf the Younge (...)

8Faithful to his source, that is Ibn Yaḥya’s Shalshelet ha‑qabbalah, Buxtorf relates about the legend of the late conversion of Maimonides to the doctrine of Kabbalah, and quotes an allegedly autobiographic document by Maimonides himself, a letter written from Jerusalem in which the philosopher would have stated: “If I had known what I know now I would have written very different things.” The sources given for this (quite sensational) claim are Eliyyah Ḥayyim (that is Eliyyah Ḥayyim of Gennazano’s Iggeret hamudot)30 and the Migdal ‘oz by Yom Tov ben Abraham ibn Ga’on, both quoted indirectly, as he found them in the Shalshelet ha‑qabbalah.31 In any event, Buxtorf Jr. refrains from any comment, since it is clear that the “conversion” could not affect the works written beforehand, such as the Guide.

9The same sources are quoted also to depict the variant testimonies about his place of death and of his tomb (Jerusalem, Egypt, Tiberias), and the controversies about his works found even here their expression since, as Ibn Yaḥya reports, some of his enemies desecrated his tomb and wrote on it the derogatory epitaph מוחרם ומין (Excommunicatus, anathematizatus et ereticus).

  • 32 Published in Isny in 1541.

10It is far from surprising to find, in Buxtorf’s preface, a mention of the celebrated proverbial expression ממשה עד משה לא קם כמשה (“from Moses to Moses there was none like Moses”), as a common saying about Maimonides (tritum inter Judaeos). Nevertheless, it is quite interesting that Buxtorf quotes, as one attestation of this saying, the preface of the Tishby32 by Elijah Levita: on that occasion, the formula is playfully adapted to praise the Christian Hebraist Paulus Fagius: מפאולוס עד פאולוס לא קם כפאולוס (“from Paulus to Paulus there was none like Paulus”).

  • 33 The date corresponds to November the 6th according to the Gregorian Calendar.

11Two very important quotations follow here, and I propose to consider them the immediate reason for Buxtorf’s decision to translate anew the Guide into Latin. Upon evoking Christian praise for Maimonides, Buxtorf does not quote, as one could have expected, neither Albertus Magnus nor Thomas Aquinas, not even Johannes Reuchlin: he prefers to quote authors belonging to his own generation, the most prestigious intellectuals of his time. The first one is the already mentioned Joseph Justus Scaliger, who, in a letter to his friend Isaac Casaubon dated of the 27th October 1601,33 had written:

  • 34 Joseph Justus Scaliger, 1627, p. 195 (n. 62).

Ego non solum illum librum (More Nevochim), sed etiam omnia illius Magistri opera tanti facio, ut solum illum inter Iudaeos desiisse nugari dicam.34

  • 35 The passage was noted, as not very flattering, by Guttmann, 1908, p. LXXXVIII.

My esteem for not only that book (the Guide) but for all the works of that Master is so great, that I would say that he is the only Jew that can be taken seriously.35

12The second quotation is taken from the Exercitationes contra Baronium of the addressee of Scaliger’s letter, Isaac Casaubon, and is very much in keeping with the first judgment:

  • 36 Isaac Casaubon, 1614, p. 611. For Casaubon and Maimonides, see Grafton & Weinberg, 2011.

Moses Majemonides (qui et Moses Aegyptius dicitur) solidae atque ingentis doctrinae vir, de quo videor mihi posse dicere, quod Plinius olim de Diodoro Siculo, primum inter suos desiisse nugari.36

  • 37 Pliny, Naturalis historia, pref. 25.

Moses Maimonides (also called Moses the Aegyptian) [was] a man of solid and great erudition, about whom I can say what Pliny37 once said of Diodorus Siculus, that he was namely the first among his pairs who ceased to utter nonsense.

13With this resonant sentence, Buxtorf ends the first part of his introduction, dedicated to the life and personality of his author. In summing up what he has drawn from Jewish sources, he begs the readers’ pardon since some of the events narrated seem fabulous or fictitious (fabulosa aut fictitia), but he has preferred to preserve them, since not everybody has access to such rare sources in Hebrew.

14The second and last part of the Preface concentrates on the book itself, defined as Introduction and Key (Manuductio et clavis) to the correct understanding of metaphors and allegories of the Holy Scripture. The Guide contains a biblical theology, it offers reasons for the precepts and explains many passages that might perplex the reader, guiding him like Moses guided the Israelites through the desert. Buxtorf emphasizes that Maimonides, in doing so, refused to recur to two specifically Jewish methods, the Talmudic discussion and the Kabbalistic interpretation. This is, according to Buxtorf, the reason why the Guide stirred the bitter opposition of some Jews, especially in France. The philosophical bent of the Guide had already triggered a malevolent reaction during Maimonides’ life, but worse was to come. Buxtorf mentions Shelomoh ben Avraham of Montpellier and his stern battle against the Guide, his partial success in Southern France, the pro‑Maimonidean reaction and the fact that the anti‑Maimonideans did not shy away from denouncing the supporters of Maimonides to the Christian authorities, endangering the survival of Jewish culture as such.

  • 38 See Rabi Moses Aegyptius, 1520.

15Concerning this point, Buxtorf cites the Preface by the bishop Agostino Giustiniani, who published the medieval Latin translation of the Guide in Paris, in 1520.38 In his short introduction, Giustiniani mentioned the anti‑Maimonideans and their embittered activities in order to recommend Maimonides and the Guide to his Christian readership. Already Giustiniani had praised Maimonides as honest (candidus) and not at all superstitious (minime superstitiosus).

  • 39 Perles, 1875.

16Buxtorf was well aware that the Guide had been originally written in Arabic and knew that the first Hebrew translation was the one made by Samuel Ibn Tibbon, who consulted the author on specific difficult points, and obtained his approbation. From some passages of his annotations to the Guide, Buxtorf shows to be aware of the existence of a second translation, made by Yehuda Al‑Ḥarizi, which was not approved (non fuit approbata) or, as Zacuto writes, אינה ראויה (non est congrua). Buxtorf never saw that second Hebrew translation, and therefore he could not ascertain (as it was done, much later, by Joseph Perles)39 that the Latin translation published by Giustiniani was based upon Al‑Ḥarizi’s Hebrew rendition of the Guide. He only knew that the Latin translation was older than the 16th century. In fact, commenting the information found in Ibn Yaḥya—namely that Jacob Mantino translated the Guide into Latin—he casts a serious doubt, with good reasons, on the idea that Mantino should be responsible for the translation published by Giustiniani, which he considered, correctly, to be older.

  • 40 Scaliger gives some examples of the latter type: instead of “spiritualem” the Paris 1520 version r (...)
  • 41 Joseph Justus Scaliger, 1627, p. 704.
  • 42 Ibid. p. 507.

17As to the quality of the translation published by Giustiniani, instead of criticizing it himself, which could have appeared a distasteful self‑praise, he prefers to quote Scaliger’s judgment. Scaliger possessed a manuscript of the Guide in Arabic written with Hebrew characters, and, by comparing it with the Hebrew translation (of Ibn Tibbon), he had found out that the Latin translator utilized the Hebrew translation as his basis. One may add that Scaliger was only partially right, since, as it is now known, the medieval Latin translation was not based, as he thought, on Ibn Tibbon’s Hebrew version, but on Al‑Ḥarizi’s. The final judgment of Scaliger, resulting from a comparison between the Arabic original, Ibn Tibbon’s version and the Latin rendition published by Giustiniani, is humbling: “Magna seges mendorum est in Latino” [In Latin there is a great harvest of mistakes]; and to the mistakes of the translator, he remarks, one has to add also the ones made by the copyists and the printer.40 As a matter of fact, in the already mentioned letter to Casaubon, Scaliger lists only banal reading mistakes, without entering in a comparison with the Arabic text or even with its Hebrew translation. Nevertheless, Buxtorf subscribes entirely to Scaliger’s opinion and calls him “incomparable hero” and charges even more his judgment: the ancient Latin version published by Giustiniani is defaced by infinite errors and mistakes, some of them due to the copyists, but an equal number was also caused by the translator’s ignorance. He could list hundreds of places where the translator obscured the meaning of the “original,” which is for him the Hebrew version of Ibn Tibbon, or where the Latin translator made one sentence of two or vice versa. Buxtorf criticizes also the fact that Biblical quotations are not recognized as such, wrongly translated and, as it is obvious, without any marginal reference. Moreover, he observes that the style is heavy and obscure, attributing that shortcoming to the epoch of the translation, suggesting thus that it was a product of Scholastic mentality and rhetoric, or rather its painful lack. In addition, he quotes other passages from Scaliger epistles which are of special interest for us. He cites, for example, Scaliger’s letter to Stéphane Hubert (Stephanus Ubertus), in which the Guide is praised as “a book full of good fruits, of lofty erudition and absolutely necessary for Christian Theologians” [Liber plenus bonae frugis, abstrusae eruditionis, et Theologis Christianis apprime necessaries].41 And again, in writing to Richard “the Dutch” Thomson, the Orientalist who had sent him the Arabic manuscript of the Guide, Scaliger had written: “The book is more precious to me than the equivalent in gold” [pluris mihi esse librum, quam si ἰσόμετρον χρυσοῦν misisses].42

  • 43 TB Bava batra 22a.

18Among the other attestations of praise for the book listed by Buxtorf quoting Isaac Casaubon and Agostino Giustiniani, it will suffice here to remark that all of them lauded the Guide not so much as a philosophical book, but rather as a masterpiece in rational exegesis of the Biblical text. Buxtorf concludes this section with yet another Jewish proverb, in Aramaic (פוק תהי ליה בקנקניה, “go yourself, smell his jar”)43 as an exhortation for the reader to verify personally the qualities of the book.

  • 44 TB Ketubbot 10a.

19In order to further justify his own translation, Buxtorf refers how, six years earlier, he got hold of the Paris 1520 edition and, hoping to use it in order to improve his Hebrew, he found out that, not only he could not understand it, but he had serious difficulties in retrieving the Hebrew original for any given sentence. He affirms that he loved languages above anything and wanted to follow the steps of his father. In order to enhance his fidelity, Buxtorf quotes yet another Aramaic saying expressing his pride in replicating his father’s interests and passions:
רחילא בתר רחילא אזלא וברא עובדיה דאבוהי [ovis post ovem et filius sequitur opera patris sui].44 Therefore, he decided to translate the book anew for the common utility. He soon found out that it was easier said than done: the difficulty of the subject, for one, and the intricacy of the style (stylus perplexus), which Buxtorf explains, with good reasons, as a consequence of the fidelity of the Hebrew translator to the Arabic original. With the help of all the tools he could dispose of and of the erudition of his father and his friends, and with God’s assistance, he made it.

  • 45 On p. 146v of the Sabbioneta edition.

20For his enterprise, he used a manuscript as well as a printed edition, clearly identified as the Sabbioneta 1553 edition, containing some commentaries, in particular the ones by Efodi (that is Profiat Duran or Isaac ben Moshe ha‑Levi), the one by Shem Tov (which Buxtorf clearly did not recognize as Shem Tov ben Yosef Falaquera, since he proposed, albeit hesitatingly, to identify him with the translator of Averroes’ commentary on the Metaphysics, that is to say Kalonymos ben David, whom he mixed up with the much later translator Calo Calonimo, on the sole basis of the fact that “Calonymos” in Greek is like “Shem Tov” in Hebrew), and the one by Asher (Bonan) Crescas, which proved very helpful. The Hebrew manuscript at his disposal was instrumental in integrating some words and a whole passage45 missing in the printed edition.

  • 46 TB ‘Avodah zarah 17b.
  • 47 Judah Halevi, 1660.

21Buxtorf is well aware of the fact that not everybody will be praising his work and the book he has decided to print, especially since the present war (an episode of the Thirty Years’ war) has brought culture to a deep crisis, which he chooses to express with another Jewish proverb:
אם ספרא לא סייפא ואם סייפא לא ספרא [Si litterae non arma, si arma non litterae].46 For a strange destiny (singulari fato), at the point in which intellectual development almost reached the top, it fell to the deepest. He decided not to suppress the work done, hoping that, if not immediately, there will be in the future a readership for his book. As a matter of fact, writing thirty years later the preface to his Latin Translation of the Sefer ha‑Kuzari, Buxtorf will regret to have omitted from his edition of the Guide the Hebrew text of Ibn Tibbon’s translation, and he will recall that he was prevented by the war to fulfill this most necessary task.47

  • 48 TB agiga 15b.
  • 49 To name a couple of examples: on p. 380 (Guide III, 17), concerning “free will,” Buxtorf censors M (...)

22As to the dangers of reading a Jewish book, he reassures his potential readership by quoting yet another Jewish proverbial expression:
רימון מצא תוכו אכל קליפתו זרק [Qui malogranatum invenit, comedat meditullium, et corticem abjiciat; if one finds a pomegranate, he should eat the interior and throw away the peel].48 There are, admittedly, a few passages which are openly heterodox from the point of view of Christian religion, but Buxtorf has provided warning notes on the margins (virgulae censoriae)49 and states already in the Preface that these passages are rare and not very venomous (non sunt multa nec amarulenta). He has preferred not to castrate the author, as he did not want to cut these passages, alluding implicitly to the practice of Catholic censors. Nobody, he is persuaded, will be induced to believe some untruth, nor anybody will accuse the translator to have approved these passages.

23Short before reaching his conclusion, Buxtorf does not omit to recommend the book for yet another of its merits: the Guide will help the reader to improve enormously his knowledge of Hebrew, if he will have the opportunity to compare it with the original, that is Ibn Tibbon’s translation. The “original” somehow lingers about any translation and it is inevitable, if one wants to make the translation, as it were, reversible, for study purposes. To the service of the reader, but also for his relief (maioris jucunditatis gratia), Buxtorf added also marginal notes and an index. Moreover, he has translated and adapted the index of Biblical references found in the printed edition, the already mentioned Sabbioneta 1553 edition with commentaries. The preface is dated of the 20th February 1629.

24The candid preface by Johannes Buxtorf the Younger offers the opportunity to raise two final questions: beside the curious idea of using a Latin translation of the Guide in order to learn Hebrew, it is quite clear that Buxtorf saw in this seminal book a positive aspect of Judaism, deserving to be supported and promoted. But when did the project of using Maimonides for fostering a new Christian apprehension of Judaism and, at the same time, for suggesting or imposing an alternative history of Jewish exegesis, which could have brought, in turn, a re‑definition of the intellectual and theological priorities of Judaism itself, actually come about? Moreover: how, albeit in a symbolic fashion, did this movement intended at putting Maimonides’ Guide at the center of a revised, rationalized, universalized Judaism, of which Buxtorf was rather part and parcel and not the exclusive initiator, influence later developments?

25It does not escape me that these are complex and far‑reaching questions, deserving a monographic treatment rather than an occasional obiter dictum, nevertheless I deem it preferable to run the risk of being too generic than to miss completely the perspective into which Buxtorf’s translation can only be properly understood. As surprising as it might seem, the real starting point of Buxtorf’s new appreciation of Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed and of its novel translation into Latin remount to an epoch which precedes by far his own birth‑date and even that of his father. I am speaking of the fateful year 1553, which saw the public burning of the Talmud in Italy, by decree of the Pope Julius III, but also the prohibition, strictly related to the burning of the Talmud, of any activity of Hebrew printing in Venice, which in turn lead to the dissemination of printers and correctors to other towns in northern Italy, most prominently to Mantua and Cremona, but also to other smaller centers, such as Sabbioneta. There, in the very same year 1553, the printer Tobia Foa, aided by the corrector and editor Cornelio Adelkind, produced a splendid commented edition of the Guide, the one used almost 80 years later by Buxtorf, who, at the end of his Preface, printed a poem in praise of the work, by Rafael Treves, taken from the aforementioned Sabbioneta edition. To that edition he resorted not only to establish the text serving as a basis for his own version, but also in search for help among the vast commentaries adorning it.

  • 50 Cf. Campanini, 2012.
  • 51 As it has been suggested by Raz‑Krakotzkin, 2005; English translation: id., 2007.
  • 52 X Veridik (pen name), 1834, p. 48. Cf. also the review of this pamphlet, „Über Judenhass und Juden (...)
  • 53 Kohler, 2012.

26As it has been remarked in the case of the Kabbalah, which saw a flourishing season of printing its main classics, and in particular the Zoharic literature in the decade following 1553,50 the perfect coincidence of the date of the burning of the Talmud and the printing of the Guide suggests, by the same logic seeing in the Index librorum prohibitorum an instrument for shaping by contrast the modern canon of Jewish literature,51 also a definite program of substitution. Buxtorf the Younger’s translation of the Guide into Latin continued this implicit program from the Christian side, viewing in it not only, as Giustiniani already suggested, a controversial book certainly useful for the Christians, precisely because some Jews had attacked it, but also a clear manifesto for a renewed Judaism, guided by “reason” and avoiding Talmudic casuistry. It is not by any chance that, to come to the second question I have asked, in the 19th century, a pseudonymous “impartial” Christian theologian, who signed “X. Veridick,” in his Winke und Wohlmeinende Ratschläge für israelitische Schulen, published in Leipzig in 1834, promoted the reading of Maimonides’ Guide among the Jews, in order to “ameliorate” their cultural standing and to favour their integration into the “enlightened” dominant society.52 It is still in the continuity of Buxtorf’s project that this “friendly hint and counsel” was given, and one would have expected, in George Kohler’s recent book on Maimonides as the Guide to Jewish Reform in 19th century,53 a reference to Buxtorf as one of the fathers of this apparently inner‑Jewish return to Maimonides, which was objectively fulfilling a desideratum and a solicitation of a pious Calvinist Hebraist from the war‑ridden 17th century.

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Johannes Buxtorf, 1708, De Abbreviaturs Hebraicis… Editione hac novissima Omnia Castigatiora, luculentis Adnotationibus inlustrata, et novis Abbreviaturis Librorumque Titulis aucta, Stanno et Sumtibus Ioan & Nicolai Andreae, Herbornae Nassaviae, 217 p.

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Campanini Saverio, 2012, “On Abraham’s Neck. The Editio Princeps of the Sefer Yetzirah (Mantua 1562) and Its Context” in Veltri Giuseppe & Miletto Gianfranco (eds.), Rabbi Judah Moscato and the Jewish Intellectual World of Mantua in the 16th-17th Centuries, Brill, Leiden/Boston, pp. 253‑278.

Campanini Saverio, 2013, « De Leone Ebreo à Leo Hebraeus. Un texte philosophique de la Renaissance et l’impact de sa traduction latine » in Fery-Hue Françoise (dir.), Traduire de vernaculaire en latin au Moyen-âge et à la Renaissance. Méthodes et finalités, École des chartes, Paris, p. 221‑247.

Campanini Saverio, 2018, « Le Zohar dans le Dictionarium Syro-Chaldaicum de Guy Le Fèvre de la Boderie » in Dahan G. & Noblesse‑Rocher A. (dir.), Les Hébraïsants chrétiens en France au xvie siècle, Droz, Genève, p. 341‑361.

Isaac Casaubon, 1614, De rebus sacris et ecclesiasticis Exercitationes XVI. Ad Cardinal Baronii Prolegomena in Annales, et primam eorum partem, de D. N. Iesu Christi Nativitate, Vita, Passione, Assumtione, Ex officina Nortoniana, apud J. Billium, Londini, 773 p.

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Eliyyah ayyim ben Binyamin Genazzano, 2002, La lettera preziosa. חמודות אגרת, ed. e trad. Lelli Fabrizio, La Giuntina/L’Éclat, Firenze/Nîmes, 313 p.

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Guttmann Jacob, 1908, „Der Einfluß der maimonidischen Philosophie auf das christliche Abendland“ in Bacher Wilhelm, Brann Marcus & Simonsen David (hrsg. v.), Moses ben Maimon. Sein Leben, seine Werke und sein Einfluss, Gustav Fock, Leipzig, pp. 135‑230.

Halevi Judah, 1660, כוזרי Liber Cosri continens Colloquium seu Disputationem de Religione, habitam ante nongentos annos, inter Regem Cosareorum, et R. Isaacum Sangarum Judaeum; contra Philosophos praecipue e Gentilibus, et Karraitas e Judaeis, Synopsis simul exhibens Theologiae et Philosophiae Judaicae, varia et recondita eruditione refertam; eam collegit, in ordinem redegit, et in Lingua Arabica ante quingentos annos descripsit R. Jehudah Levita, Hispanus; ex Arabica in Linguam Hebraeam, circa idem tempus, transtulit R. Jehudah Aben Tybbon, itidem natione Hispanus, civitate Jerichuntinus. Nunc, in gratiam Philologiae, et Linguae Sacrae cultorum, recensuit, Latina versione, et Notis illustravit Johannes Buxtorf, Fil., Sumptibus Authoris, Typis Georgi Decker, Basileae, 455 p.

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1 Cf. Kayserling, 1884. See also id., 1886, and Burnett, 2012, p. 148.

2 Campanini, 2013.

3 Or rather paraneologism, since the term is already attested; cf. Bredehoft, 2014, p. 143.

4 Genette, 1987; English translation: id., 1997.

5 Johannes Buxtorf Jr., 1622.

6 Rabbi Moses Majemonides, 1629.

7 Johannes Buxtorf, 1629. Cf. now Dunkelgrün, 2016.

8 Cf. Burnett, 1996, p. 139.

9 Johannes Buxtorf, 1603.

10 Johannes Buxtorf, 1610.

11 At least according to the traditional Hebrew version of the text, as found, for example, in Moshe Ben Maimon, 1545, f. 27v. As it will be shown further on, this Venetian edition is most likely the source used by Buxtorf Jr. The Arabic original, as published by D. Baneth, (cf. Baneth, 1946, p. 69) has a slightly different text.

12 The translation is found in Johannes Buxtorf, 1629, f. *3v.

13 Campanini, 2018.

14 One should, nevertheless, consider that Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, a systematic code of the Jewish law, could be perceived as an attempt to abbreviate the discussions found in the Gemara, or even to make it obsolete.

15 Jer. 3, 14.

16 Buxtorf used the second edition (Cracow, 1580‑81) and not the first one (Constantinople, 1566), as it can be deduced from the fact that only the Cracow edition is mentioned in his Bibliotheca rabbinica invariably from 1613 (see Johannes Buxtorf, 1613, p. 295) down to 1708 (see Johannes Buxtorf, 1708, p. 89).

17 Isaac Israeli the Younger, cited indirectly through Zacuto.

18 Quoted according to the second edition, Cracow, 1596 (the only one quoted in the Bibliotheca rabbinica of 1613, Johannes Buxtorf, p. 327). Later editions of the Bibliotheca mention also the princeps, printed by Giovanni di Gara, Venezia, 1587. See also Burnett, 1996, p. 279.

19 Ed. 1596, f. 44.

20 Published in Prague in 1592.

21 See Johannes Buxtorf, 1708, pp. 188‑189: “Hebraicum exemplar excusum in Italia, Germanicum, quod habeo, Cracoviae, anno שנ''א CCCLI, Christi MDXLI [sic for MDXCI].”

22 Cf. Stanislawski, 1998, pp. 134‑149; see also Burnett, 1994, p. 281; id., 1996, p. 120; 284.

23 Rabbi Moses Filius Meimon, 1555.

24 “Theologiae in sua Relligione et fide Doctor fuit insignis, ac (quae laus ipsi tribuenda) Fabulis et Traditionibus Talmudicis minime addictus”: Johannes Buxtorf, 1629, f. *3v.

25 Johannes Buxtorf, 1629, f. *4v.

26 Ed. Mantua, 1574. Buxtorf possessed this edition and he praised the book and the author in later editions of his Bibliotheca rabbinica.

27 See Azariah de' Rossi, 2001, pp. 195‑196.

28 Johannes Buxtorf, 1629, f. **2v; cf. Johannes Buxtorf, 1613, p. 308: Buxtorf Father admitted that, at the time, he had not seen the Latin translation published by Giustiniani.

29 Johannes Buxtorf, 1629, p. 381 and ff.

30 Published first as Eliyyah ayyim Ben Binyamin Da Genazzano, 1912; 2002

31 It is interesting to note that in the Bibliotheca rabbinica, under אגרת חמודות, Buxtorf the Younger is wrong in saying that the work is quoted in the preface to his translation of the Kuzari (recte: Moreh nevukhim).

32 Published in Isny in 1541.

33 The date corresponds to November the 6th according to the Gregorian Calendar.

34 Joseph Justus Scaliger, 1627, p. 195 (n. 62).

35 The passage was noted, as not very flattering, by Guttmann, 1908, p. LXXXVIII.

36 Isaac Casaubon, 1614, p. 611. For Casaubon and Maimonides, see Grafton & Weinberg, 2011.

37 Pliny, Naturalis historia, pref. 25.

38 See Rabi Moses Aegyptius, 1520.

39 Perles, 1875.

40 Scaliger gives some examples of the latter type: instead of “spiritualem” the Paris 1520 version reads “specialem”; instead of “Philosophia” it reads “Prophetia”; furthermore, it has “Bonitatem” for “Brevitatem”; “altitudo” for “aptitudo.”

41 Joseph Justus Scaliger, 1627, p. 704.

42 Ibid. p. 507.

43 TB Bava batra 22a.

44 TB Ketubbot 10a.

45 On p. 146v of the Sabbioneta edition.

46 TB ‘Avodah zarah 17b.

47 Judah Halevi, 1660.

48 TB agiga 15b.

49 To name a couple of examples: on p. 380 (Guide III, 17), concerning “free will,” Buxtorf censors Maimonides on a specific point of Calvinist theology, i.e. the predestination and the absolute sovereignty of God. On p. 296 (II, 36) he warns the reader that Maimonides speaks of the Messiah more judaico (saying: utinam cito reveletur) which sounds less than appropriate in Christian ears. On p. 48 (I, 48) Buxtorf comments: “Non pauca qua hic habet, videntur Pelagianismum sapere, ideoque cum iudicio legenda.” In other words, Maimonides denies the original sin, implicitly, by saying that the human nature is capable of choosing good and refusing evil. He thus deserves, in Buxtorf’s view, the accusation of being semi‑Pelagian or wholly Pelagian.

50 Cf. Campanini, 2012.

51 As it has been suggested by Raz‑Krakotzkin, 2005; English translation: id., 2007.

52 X Veridik (pen name), 1834, p. 48. Cf. also the review of this pamphlet, „Über Judenhass und Judenverfolgung“, Rheinische Blätter für Erziehung und Unterricht 15‑16 (1835), pp. 299‑312.

53 Kohler, 2012.

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Saverio Campanini, « Perspicue et fideliter conversus: Johannes Buxtorf the Younger’s Translation of the Guide of the Perplexed », Yod, 22 | 2019, 133-153.

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Saverio Campanini, « Perspicue et fideliter conversus: Johannes Buxtorf the Younger’s Translation of the Guide of the Perplexed », Yod [En ligne], 22 | 2019, mis en ligne le 20 septembre 2019, consulté le 13 décembre 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/yod.3765

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Saverio Campanini

Università di Bologna

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