by: Amy Phillips & Christopher Morse
Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana Neofiti 37 is a bilingual manuscript in Italian and Hebrew written on paper, totalling 226 folia. It was authored by the Jewish convert Andrea De Monte (formerly Yosef Tsarfati di Fez).¹ It was written in Rome between 1576-1600 and bears the title Della verita della venuta del Messia alli Hebrei, or, Lettera di Pace – and in Hebrew, Ametot biat ha-Mashiaḥ el ha-jehudim ḥibor. After De Monte’s death the manuscript came into the possession of Ugo Boncompagni, also a Jewish convert who was formerly known as Solomon Corcos. Boncampagni was quite wealthy and converted with his family in 1581², taking as his baptismal name the first and last name of Pope Gregory XIII. Boncampagni gave Neofiti 37 along with 125 other manuscripts, to the Casa Neofiti in 1602.³ A dedication appears on the verso of the first folio, to Cardinal Guglielmo Sirleto, who was at that time the librarian for the Vatican Library.
As the heading of the manuscript and the first folio indicate, this is an apologetic piece written in order to demonstrate that Jesus was the messiah which the Tanak (Old Testament or Hebrew Bible) had prophesied, the promised anointed one sent by God to his people. What is interesting to note is that De Monte names the title of his treaty Lettera di Pace, drawing attention away from the fact that in the 16th century especially, violence had been done to the intellectual heritage of Judaism first through the burning of the Talmud on the Campo di Fiori in 1553, and secondly through the censuring and expurgation done to commentaries and other Jewish literature in Hebrew by the Inquisition and the Congregation for the Index of Forbidden Books. Thus, Jews and their religion were constantly under attack, their thoughts and words forbidden. Peaceful though the letter may be, it is an intellectual attack against the Jewish faith.⁵
Besides the indication from Neofiti 37, we know that De Monte was a famous preacher from the French philosopher, Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592). In his journal that he kept of his voyage to Italy de Montaigne writes about “that renegade rabbi, who preaches to the Jews Saturday afternoon in the oratory of the Trinita. There are always sixty Jews forced to attend. He was one of their wisest scholars and now he combats their faith with their own arguments, the words of their rabbis and the the text of the Bible.” ⁶
Another eyewitness to De Monte was the British Catholic Priest who helped found the English College in Rome, Gregory Martin (1542-1582).⁷ Martin says this about de Monte: “[his] Zeale for his brethren the Hebrews…not unlike to S. Paules in the like case, his manner of utterance to teache and convince and confound, his knowledge and readiness in the Hebrew Bible and al the Hebrewe commentaries and Chaldee Paraphrases and the Syriake and Arabike tong…Well, this man is chosen of purpose to confute them out of their owne bookes and doctors, and to confound them by their owne peevish opinions and absurde Imaginations and folish practices, which he knoweth as well as the best of their Rabbis can disclose all their ridiculous mysteries, him self having been sometime one of them, and knowing the greatest poyntes that then blinded himself, and marveling now that he could be sotted and bewitched.”⁸
Turning now to Neofiti 37: it is organized into 3 parts and its topic follows in the footsteps of the controversy between Jews and Christians, which is classically embodied in the dispute de Barcelone made in 1263 between the Dominican Pablo Christiani and famous rabbi Nahmanides.⁹ The dispute focuses on two major questions: has the Messiah come in the person of Jesus or is the Messianic promise still to be fulfilled?
In his description of the text of this manuscript, Parente describes folios 1 recto to 118 verso as De Monte making his case for the Messiah as prophesied in the Hebrew Bible. Parente remarks that De Monte uses rabbinic sources in a limited fashion, but the folios we examined have more references to the Talmud and other Jewish sources than to Biblical texts. In the second part, folios 119 recto to 178 verso, Parente tells us that De Monte responds to objections that the Messiah has come since according to Scripture, once he returns the Jews will be returned to their homeland, the Temple will be rebuilt and a new king of Israel will be enthroned and their observances will be restored. Of course, at the time of De Monte’s writing, none of those things had come to pass. The third and final part is from 179 recto to the end, folio 224 verso. Parente describes this as primarily an exhortation for conversation, in addition to listing prophecies that could address any final objections to the legitimacy of Jesus Christ as the Messiah or to the Christian faith.¹⁰
Our interest in this manuscript is threefold: first, as a research interest, Amy has been studying Jewish-Christian relations in 16th century Italy in light of the Reformation and the Council of Trent. She is interested especially in the censorship of Hebrew Books by the Congregation for the Index of Forbidden books and their goal to create a preaching manual for sermons to be delivered to the Jews of Rome. That Jewish converts played a decisive role in both of these activities is striking and their motivations for their conversion presents a perplexing yet fascinating social and religious phenomena. Understanding the documents written by the converts themselves provides critical insight to their social, intellectual, and spiritual transformations.
Second, as a digital humanist and pioneering IIIF proponent at Harvard University, and also a graduate of the Harvard Divinity School, Christopher wanted to create a test case for a digital critical edition of this manuscript following the work of Apollon, Bélisle, and Régnier in their recent publication Digital Critical Editions, which challenges the fundamental neutrality of technological approaches to manuscript scholarship, and call for a reassessment of the field in light of the ubiquity of the digital.¹¹ Of particular relevance are the two digitized versions of Diderot’s Encyclopédie, which British academic Philippe Stewart decried as a “fragmented galaxy” of discrete words and bytes, a database rather than a critical edition proper.¹² IIIF functionality provides scholars with a unique opportunity to work directly with the text alongside the traditional critical apparatus, rather than in spite of it.
Finally, there is to date no existing translation, critical edition, nor any in-depth analysis, linguistic or theological, of this manuscript. Thus our work will fill in an existing need for better understanding this text as well as the historical context of the situation for the Jews of Rome in the late 16th century in light of their forced sermon attendance.
We have chosen to present the first 18 and a half pages as a sample of the work we are doing. In our first stage, we have transcribed the text in a diplomatic fashion. That is, we transcribed the letters, words, mistakes, and marginalia as they appear.
In Hebrew Manuscripts in the Vatican Library: A Catalogue issued in 2008 (Città del Vaticano: BAV, 2008. pp. 554-555), Benjamin Richler, Malachi Beit-Arié, and Nurit Pasternak identify De Monte as the scribe as well as the author, indicating that this manuscript is “autograph”. They comment that the Hebrew is in “Italian square script”. Previously, in 2007 Fausto Parente claimed to detect three different hands for the Italian text and two hands for the Hebrew text. This does not necessarily contradict Richler, Beit-Arié, and Pasternak because one could imagine that corrections inserted above or in the marginalia after the text was written, would appear different, if for no other reason than the script size needed to be altered to fit in the space remaining on the page. Regarding the Hebrew corrections, they may appear different since Richler, Beit-Arié, and Pasternak describe the Hebrew script in B.A.V. Neofiti 35 as “Sephardic-Oriental-current semi-cursive-script” (p. 553) and they conjecture that this manuscript is written by Andrea De Monte. Moreover, about this script they say: “The writing…is identical to Andrea’s glosses in the margins of MS Neofiti 37.” (p. 554) In any event, we document changes in the text through our transcription and provide annotations on how those changes may differ between the Italian and Hebrew texts. These are located in the “translation” tab, imprecisely but to be improved in our ongoing work on this site.
In our creating a translation, we are still at the initial stages of this and have not provided one for this presentation, though we will most likely create an eclectic text. In the case of B.A.V. Neofiti 37, we know it was authored by Andrea De Monte, but this does not eliminate the problem of which “witness”, whether the Hebrew or the Italian, will be the base text of our translation. The manuscript is presented as an entire unit and is the only one that was made so there is no need for a reconstruction as such. It should be noted, however, that there are some minor translation variants between the Hebrew and the Italian, so annotations need to be made so as to explain where they occur. Since the stated audience is the Jews (of Rome), one might want to give primacy to the Hebrew text. It may be the case, however, that the presentation of the Italian text would have been for those who did not know Hebrew, namely, the ecclesiastical authorities in Rome, especially those members of the Congregations for the Roman Inquisition and Index of Prohibited Books, most notably Cardinal Sirleto, the manuscript’s dedicatee. At this point, we are hesitant, nonetheless, call the Italian text a “translation” of the Hebrew text.
With regard to the Jewish audience, it would seem, given de Montaigne’s and Martin’s descriptions, that the sermons were given orally in Italian, since they appear to have listened and understood them and neither of them would have had command of Hebrew well enough to comprehend an oration. The Jews of Rome, of course, would have also known Italian, so they could have understood either text. On the other hand, since the document is called by the author, a “letter” it might have been meant to be read by Jews and thus the Hebrew text could have been intended to be the preferred mode for this reading. Of course, this level of conjecture is highly problematic when faced with a text of this nature.