Studying Rabbinic Exegetical Texts in the Reformation Period

I just picked up the hot-off-the-presses festschrift for James De Jong, Biblical Interpretation and Doctrinal Formulation in the Reformed Tradition (Reformation Heritage Books, 2014) and read the fascinating chapter by Raymond A. Blacketer, “Henry Ainsworth, Harried Hebraist (1570-1622).” Not only was this a very interesting study of a Reformation figure known for both his separatist tendencies and his strong Hebrew philological abilities, it also gives a glimpse into the study of Hebrew during the Reformation.

To this day, Christians debate the value of studying rabbinic texts for biblical exegesis. At the extremes, some feel that the rabbis were the preservers par excellence of the meaning of the Hebrew Old Testament, others feel that they are the epitome of a deceived interpreter (often citing 2 Cor. 3:14-15) and thus time should not be wasted reading their works. Ainsworth found himself in the thick of the same debate, though chose to regularly utilize Jewish sources in his own Protestant, theological study of the Old Testament.

Blacketer’s description of Ainsworth’s use of Jewish texts is very interesting:

Ainsworth’s liberal use of rabbinic versions was certainly ore controversial in an age where there was still significant ambivalence or outright mistrust of Jewish exegesis. In The Orthodox Foundation of Religion, Ainsworth adduced three means to obtaining knowledge of God’s Word: prayer, meditation, and “conversation with the wise and learned.” Clearly Ainsworth counted the rabbinic interpreters among the latter. In the preface to his annotations, he provides two reasons for his use of the Chaldee paraphrase and the rabbinic interpreters, and particularly Maimonides, his favorite. The first is “to give light to the ordinaces of Moses touching the externall practice of them in the common wealth of Israel, which the Rabbines did record, and without whose help, many of those legall rites (especially in Exodus and Leviticus) will not be easily understood.” Ainsworth mentions the rite of the Passover and the use of phylacteries in particular as areas in which the rabbis can provide helpful historical context for understanding the gospels. He concedes, however, that with regard to the theological exposition of the Old Testament rites and ceremonies, “the later Rabbins are for the most part blinde.”

The second reason for Ainnsworth’s copious use of rabbinic exegesis is to demonstrate how frequently their own interpretations serve to confirm New Testament teachings, albeit sometimes to their own condemnation: “And so the testimony of the adversary, against himself, helpeth our faith.” Ainsworth again provides a number of examples, including the Aramaic paraphrase of Psalm 50:3 (cf. Heb. 49:3), which makes reference to the day of judgment (yom dina rabba, יום דינא רבא). The Jews employed this interpretation against the Sadducees, and, Ainsworth argues, this interpretation lies behind Jude 6, which speaks of fallen angels being bound for the great day of judgment (εἰϛ κρίσιν μεγάληϛ ἡμέραϛ). Other examples of how rabbinic interpretation has enter the New Testament include the use of the terms “paradise” for heaven and “gehenna” for hell. Ainsworth mentions the second century Rabbi Jonathan as having applied thee term “second death,” used in the book of Revelation, to an apostate Israel in connection with Isaiah 65:6-15. The Aramaic paraphrase even anticipates the concept of Christ as God’s Word, as in its rendering of Psalm 110:1. The New Testament calls the devil “the accuser,” as does “R. Menache” (Recanati) in his comments on Leviticus 25. Ainsworth also mentions a Rabbi “Bochai,” who is Bahya ben Asher, whose Torah commentary saw frequent printings in Europe. Paul, in calling circumcision a seal, follows the usage of the rabbis, and here Ainsworth cites Maimonides’s treatise on circumcision, chapter 3. Allowing his confessional commitments to show through again, Ainsworth uses rabbinic evidence to demonstrate that the circumcision of infants was also  a “baptism with fire,” that is, a spiritual baptism, and not merely a carnal sign, as the opponents of infant baptism claim. He notes that the Egyptian sorcerers Jannes and Jambres, who Paul mentions in 2 timothy 3:8, are recorded in the Talmud and other Jewish sources. Thus rabbinic exegesis will not only help to clarify certain passages, but also to “end some controversies.” But Ainsworth informs his readers that he will largely pass over Jewish “fables” that are as unprofitable as they are plentiful, though with some exceptions, leaving them to “further consideration of the prudent.”

Pgs. 141-142

This was a very fascinating study and I look forward to reading some of the other chapters in this fine looking volume. Readers who wish to read Henry Ainsworth’s Annotations on the Pentateuch can find them for free in PDF format at, or for purchase on Amazon (vol 1 here & vol 2 here, from what I can tell).

R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)
Anaheim, CA

5 thoughts on “Studying Rabbinic Exegetical Texts in the Reformation Period”

  1. Hi Andrew,
    Nice… I hadn’t run across Ainsworth before. I had no idea Leder and Muller were collaborating on this!

    If you are interested in articles on Christian Hebraists in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries, check out Magne Sæbø, ed. Hebrew Bible/Old Testament: The History of Its Interpretation, Vol. II: From the Renaissance to the Enlightenment (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2008). It contains a wealth of articles from some amazing scholars. They survey everything from the obsession with the “Hebrew veritas” to different kinds of OT interpretation in Reformation and pre-Reformation movements. Unfortunately, it’s cost prohibitive like most of these kinds of books. (I managed to snag a copy at SBL a couple of years ago for half off at $175…)


    1. Ugh …. so jealous … the Saebo volumes caught my eye back when I was reviewing the book on Historical Criticism by Gignilliat. Really amazing looking resource. I’ve always wanted to read the books by Reventlow as well

      I first heard about Ainsworth while skimming through the book by Randall Peterson and Joel Beeke, “Meet the Puritans.” It was an interesting entry there and the contribution to the De Jong volume was interesting too. Wow – I’m surprised you didn’t know about the book. It might have been a surprise. I believe they surprised W.R. Godfrey with his a few years back, so most of us hadn’t heard anything about it. Nice volume, although there are some typesetting errors with the Hebrew script. Doh!

      I’ve also learned about an interesting American Puritan figure, Judah Monis, who converted from Judaism to Christianity and taught Hebrew at Harvard back in the early days. If you get a chance, check out the article in the Stanford student journal, Herodotus ( Written by an undergrad, but still a good paper and really interesting. These are such fascinating stories … maybe one day I’ll find a copy of Saebo laying on a bus bench someday … one can dream!



      1. The Reventlow books are quite good as well (and MUCH more cost friendly!). I used Reventlow a fair bit when I was working on the dissertation. One of my readers (my historian on the committee, James O. Duke) actually translated Reventlow’s History of Biblical Interpretation series for SBL press.

        Speaking of… Another fine book on early modern biblical interpretation comes out in September (WARNING! SHAMELESS SELF PROMOTION AHEAD!!) Though it too is far to pricey….


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