Jacob's Shipwreck

Diaspora, Translation, and Jewish-Christian Relations in Medieval England

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Ruth Nisse
  • Ithaca, NY: 
    Cornell University Press
    , April
     248 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Ruth Nisse’s Jacob’s Shipwreck is a learned volume that carries significant repercussions. Nisse maintains that extra-biblical or noncanonical texts such as the Book of Yosippon and Aesop’s fables served as vehicles for Christian and Jewish scholars to consider and even to re-evaluate the doctrines and interpretations of their counterparts, and to articulate their theological differences in ways which suggest that there was a significant degree of literary awareness and perhaps even interaction between them. As its subtitle indicates, this book is centered primarily in England during the 12th and 13th centuries, although quite a few developments in northern France are also included.

Nisse does a masterful job of adducing these texts and ideas from both Jewish and Christian literature, showing how the later authors sought to make these re-discovered or re-conceived ancient texts their own. Thus, for example, she makes productive use early on—and again in the conclusion—of Eleazar ben Asher ha-Levi’s early 14th-century Book of Memory, not only for the earlier Hebrew anthologies that Eleazar mines (including Sefer Yosippon and the lesser known Sefer Yerahme’el), but also for his signification of the scattered texts that he found and sought to unite. Nisse offers suggestive comparisons between the literary groupings proposed by Eleazar and those offered by the Dominican friar, Vincent of Beauvais (d. ca. 1265), and the mid-14th century monk, John Mandeville.

In arguing for literary contacts between Christians and Jews, Nisse points to ongoing research on the parameters of Christian Hebraism, and the influence of courtly literature on the Jews of northern Europe. A most significant Jewish figure throughout the book is Berekhiah ha-Nakdan, who spent time in England and Normandy (and Provence) and translated two Latin works into Hebrew while adapting them into a midrashic style. Berekhiah asserts that he sought to “rescue knowledge written in Latin for a higher expression in Hebrew,” and that “when [he] saw such splendid wisdom restored to you in an ugly setting, [he] purified [this] from the hand of the strangers and wrote it out in the Holy Language which is the most elevated language” (75-76). These activities, along with the competition and points in common that they reflect, lie at the heart of Nisse’s well-documented thesis.

Nisse moves from describing the use of ancient texts as a means of negotiating the place of Jews within Christian Europe, to Christian reactions to Jewish martyrdom, and to the forced conversion of Jews. The two central texts that Nisse deftly analyzes are a 12th-century Latin translation of a Greek work about Joseph’s wife Aseneth and her conversion (to Christianity) as found in a Canterbury monastic manuscript; and the Latin translation of the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs (from whence Nisse derived the title of her book), which was completed in 1242 by Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln.

Nisse’s presentation is compelling, although it should be noted that the most important talmudic scholars in northern Europe during the 12th and 13th centuries, the Tosafists, do not seem to have engaged in this kind of literary imitation or interaction. Less than a handful of citations from Sefer Yosippon appear in their writings. One such citation appears in Sefer Yihusei Tanna’im va-Amoraim by Judah b. Qalonymus of Speyer (d. 1199), whose unusual interest in historical sources (and affinities with the German Pietists) have been noted. Another is attributed to Rashi’s great-grandson, Ri of Dampierre—see E. E. Urbach, Ba’alei ha-Tosafot (375, 713). Nisse’s assertion that “it is likely that the prominent [rabbinic] scholars like the martyr Ejijah of York took an interest in the text [of Yossipon]” is made without any explicit support (34).

The northern French Tosafists referred to by this study are likewise tangential to its narrative. Yom Tov of Joigny and Jacob of Orleans, who moved to England later in life and were martyred during events related to the Third Crusade, are noted for their scholarly achievements and their martyrdom (42-44, 47, 50, 92, 113-14). However, there is no indication that they were involved in the study of the “non-canonical” texts which Nisse highlights, or that they drew inspiration from them. Etz Hayyim, a late 13th-century halakhic compendium by Jacob b. Judah Hazzanof London, which does make some thematic use of Sefer Yosippon (49-50, 67-68), is a popular work of Jewish lawand a collection of ritual guidelines (and prayer texts) for non-elite readers, and its author does not rise to the level of a Tosafist. Neither does Joseph of Chartres, a liturgical poetof this period (47, 88). The rabbinic judge and payyetan, Menahem of Jacob of Worms (d. 1203), is perhaps the lone exception (114-15), although his proximity to Judah of Speyer suggests that he too was aware of Sefer Yosippon without a connection to the English-French intellectual axis which stands at the core of Nisse’s presentation. Menahem’s nephew, the pietist and halakhist Eleazar of Worms (d. c. 1230), cites a passage from Sefer Yosippon on the mystical dimensions of the human form. 

For all of Berekhiah ha-Naqdan’s varied scholarly achievements (75-96, 99-101), his connection to the Tosafist oeuvre (outside of some limited biblical contexts) is tenuous at best, and his presence in Provence, Rouen, and London further mark his writings as largely peripheral to the activities of the Tosafists. The analytical methodology of the Tosafists may well have been impacted by Christian textual methods found in theological and juridical writings. But as I have suggested elsewhere, that material was transmitted in the form of a larger conceptual model which could be gleaned from basic conversation and discussion, and it was not derived from the content of particular texts. 

Nonetheless, Nisse’s well-made argument that Christians and Jews shared quite a bit in terms of the texts and ideas that are the focus of her study apparently applies to Jewish biblical interpreters, certain liturgical poets and scholars, polemicists, and sui generis polyglots such as Berekhiah. She has produced a first-rate study that will likely engender further discussion, as well as new avenues of research.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ephraim Kanarfogel is E. Billi Ivry University Professor of Jewish History, Literature, and Law at Yeshiva University.

Date of Review: 
June 26, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ruth Nisse is associate professor of English and Jewish Studies at Wesleyan University. She is the author of Defining Acts: Drama and the Politics of Interpretation in Late Medieval England.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.