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Pagninus Latin Bible online

November 17, 2012

I am very excited about being able to read the Pagninus Latin Bible, 1528, online – many thanks to Mark for putting the link into a comment yesterday!

The only other copy that I have seen was printed about a century later, and is located in Toronto. So this copy is much appreciated. The Pagninus Bible is, in my view, the most influential of all Bible translations of the Reformation. Erasmus’ Latin translation of the Christian scriptures was also important, but Pagninus translated the whole Bible. It was from the Pagninus Bible, along with the Vulgate and Luther’s Bible, that Coverdale made the first complete translation of the Bible in English.

Click on the image to get a full size version. There are many reasons why this Bible may not be well known today. It stands well outside the Prostestant tradition. Not only was the translator a Roman Catholic, but also a Hebraist and Christian Kabbalist. This edition also includes two letters from Pico della Mirandola to the translator. Della Mirandola was a well-known Christian Kabbalist and humanist.

Pagninus himself stayed officially well within the boundaries of orthodoxy. However, his main interest in the Hebrew Bible was that Hebrew was the original language, and therefore of enormous philosophical significance.

About Pico della Mirandola, we can read the following,

Because he died so young, Pico finished very little and published less: the vernacular Commento was neither completed nor published by him; the Conclusions are just bare statements of theses; half of the rushed Apology was lifted from the unpublished OrationOn Being and the One is a small piece of a larger effort to harmonize Plato and Aristotle; and Gianfrancesco found the unfinished Disputations Against Astrology bundled with his dead uncle’s papers. Unless we count the two epistolary essays on poetry and philosophical language, the only substantial and completed work that Pico gave to the world in his lifetime was the Heptaplus (1489), a Cabalist commentary on the first 26 verses of Genesis. …

Cabalists regard the meaning of God’s sacred speech, the Hebrew text of the Bible, as infinite, finding significance even in its smallest particles—not only the divine words but also their letters (which are also numbers) and even the shapes of those letters. The most powerful words are God’s names, the holiest of which, the Tetragrammaton, cannot be uttered; written as YHWH, it is pronounced Adonai, a spoken name like ElohimEhyehEl Shaddai and others used of God in the Hebrew Bible. Other words of great power are the names of the Sefirot, which are unknown, as such, to the Bible; they are names not of God but of aspects or manifestations or emanations of divinity.

Pico was the first Christian to treat knowledge of Cabala as valuable. Flavius Mithridates, his most prolific Jewish informant, translated (and mistranslated) thousands of pages of Cabala into Latin for him. Large portions of the Oration, drawing on these texts, are also informed by Cabala in ways that no contemporary Christian could have detected—least of all a Christian who lacked the clues provided by theConclusions. The esoteric intention of Pico’s thought, proclaimed emphatically in the Oration, is the feature that most distances it from the whole project of post-Cartesian philosophy in the West and also from earlier philosophies outside the Platonic tradition. Wishing not just to mystify but also to provoke, Pico succeeded and paid the price of the Church’s censure.

Theology, spirituality and philosophy—all in the broadest sense—are the main topics of Pico’s Cabala, which shows (or hints) how God reveals himself in the Sefirot, the divine names and the words of scripture. In the 72 Cabalist theses at the end of the Conclusions, this revelation becomes Christology and Trinitarian theology. From a Cabalist point of view, the Sefirot and the divine names are actors in dramas of theology, cosmology, anthropology and angelology whose major themes are exile, death, atonement and redemption, stories that Pico transposes onto the Christian Trinity, with Jesus Christ, the Messiah, as the saving hero.

Certainly Kabbalah was distasteful to Erasmus, Luther and likely many other influential leaders during this era. Many people even today might not welcome this association between an influential Bible translation and the Kabbalah. I took a course in Kabbala on finding this out, and sat down and read the Sefer Yetsirah in Hebrew. I don’t have a spiritual interest in Kabbalah, but I refuse to overlook the important role that rabbinical literature, the Kabbala and Jewish scholarship played in the history of Bible translation, and as predecessors to the Reformation.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. November 17, 2012 10:19 am

    Flavius Mithridates, his most prolific Jewish informant, translated (and mistranslated) thousands of pages of Cabala into Latin for him.

    Mistranslated? On purpose, to protect the cabalistic secrets or to mislead the Christian? Or out of ineptitude?

  2. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    November 17, 2012 10:50 am

    The analysis of Mithridates’s interpolations is aimed at evaluating more correctly the question, raised by many scholars, concerning the convert’s reliability as a translator and the supposedly Christianizing character of the materials he made available to his patron. This question evidently involves Pico’s originality in establishing a Christian Kabbalah as well. The conclusions drawn by Campanini are clear: the few Christological
    interventions by Mithridates in the text were not fabricated with the intentional purpose of Christianizing the Bahir. Nevertheless, they are the result of Mithridates’s acquaintance with Christian sources and exegesis, as well as his intention to produce a translation “compatible with a Christian interpretation of Jewish mysticism.”

    Click to access The%20Book%20of%20Bahir.pdf

  3. December 7, 2012 5:57 am

    This is brilliant. I’m now trying to work out quite which word the abbreviation “ȹ” stands for (as in the middle of the last line of Psalm 94(95)). Quia? Quod? Quoniam?

  4. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    December 8, 2012 11:41 am


    See my latest post on Latin abbreviations. There are great resources online for this.

  5. Nargunomics permalink
    July 29, 2013 8:29 am

    I’ve been fascinated by the Reformation Latin Bible translations ever since I picked up a Latin primer in my last year at Secondary School … it seems they were an effort to recalibrate the understanding of the sacred texts ,,, we’re seeing a similar thing happen amongst our Muslim brothers and sisters this present time.


  1. Suzanne McCarthy: No more crankypants! | BLT

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