Tuesday, December 07, 2004

The Targum and Thomas Browne

The seventeenth was a remarkable century for English literature. At its beginning there was Shakespeare, and at the end Dryden; and in between you have Milton, Bacon, Bunyan, and the King James Bible – not to mention, in other fields, Newton, Locke, and George Fox. But one of the greatest men of letters of that time was Sir Thomas Browne.

He is now known largely, I suppose, for the Religio Medici (1643), but he also wrote the great Urne Buriall (1658) and other works well worth perusal. As an essayist, he is, in my humble opinion, easily the equal of Bacon or Montaigne; and he even outstrips Milton as a writer of prose. In an extreme time, he was a moderate man; the Enlightenment (just a-borning) illuminated his reason without in the least corroding or diminishing his Christian faith. May his tribe increase in our own day.

I mention him here because he knew something about the Targumim. In an earlier post I expressed some interest in finding out whether knowledge of the Targumim had a place in the equipment of the learned man at an earlier time. Of course Biblical scholars and Hebraists knew them; but what about the man who was an intellectual, but not a specialist in the Bible? Browne was by profession a doctor; yet he can write, in Letter to a Friend (1656?):
Narrow not the Law of Charity, Equity, Mercy; joyn Gospel Righteousness with Legal Right; be not a meer Gamaliel in the Faith; but let the Sermon in the Mount be thy Targum unto the Law of Sinai.

There is much that could be said about this. There is more than a little contra Judaeos implicit in Browne's advice; hence the sharp irony of framing the Sermon on the Mount as a "targum" to the Ten Commandments. But what fascinates me, again, is that Browne could use the word "Targum" in a figurative way, and, presumably, expect to be understood. Of course, Browne was a master of much "curious learning" (as they might have said), and maybe he was just showing off. But I still want to know more about the place the Targum had in the curriculum of the 17th century intellectual.

I've found another reference in Browne's works to the Targum. I hope to blog on it soon.

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