The discovery of the Alfred Edersheim collection of Hebraica in Oxford

Friday, 15 May, 2009 - 10:40 am



Oxford has been synonymous with books and scholarship for centuries, comprising of over one hundred individual libraries. The main Bodleian library, second largest in the UK after the British Library, has 120 miles of occupied shelving, 29 reading rooms and 2,490 places for readers. In addition, every college, 39 in all, has its own library, often consisting of a modern, working library and older collections. From a Judaic point of view, Oxford has one of the most important collections of Hebraica in the world, including rare manuscripts and early printed books, mainly stored at the Bodleian library, collected by its non-Jewish founder, Thomas Bodley, in the 16th century.


The Hebraica collection of the Bodleian library is catalogued online with OULS (Oxford University Library System) and microfilmed at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


Less known, however, are the Hebraica collections at individual colleges. The Oxford University Chabad Society has over the past few years arranged for viewings of the known remarkable Hebraica collections at Corpus Christi, Balliol, St John’s and Christ Church Colleges.


However, recently it has been discovered that a large collection of early Hebrew printed works exist in Exeter College, on Turl Street. The collection was donated to the college by Alfred Edersheim with the express wish that it be made available for the use of students.


It is important to understand who this interesting personality was, how he came to have such a major collection of Hebraica and why he would have donated it to an Oxford college.


Who was Alfred Edersheim?


Alfred Edersheim was a biblical scholar, born in Vienna of Jewish parents on 7 March 1825. His father, Marcus Edersheim, a banker and a man of culture and wealth, had come originally from the Netherlands, and his mother was Stephanie, nee Beifuss, of a well-known Frankfurt family. Edersheim was a bright child, and as English was spoken at home he became fluent at an early age. He was educated at a local Gymnasium and also at a Hebrew school, and in 1841 he entered as a student at the University of Vienna. However, his father suffered financial ruin before the completion of his university education, and he was thrown on his own resources.

Edersheim next journeyed to Pest, in Hungary, where he supported himself by giving language lessons and met Dr John Duncan (1796-1870) and other Presbyterian ministers, who were acting at the time as chaplains to the Scottish labourers engaged in constructing the bridge over the Danube. Under their influence Edersheim converted to Christianity, and later he accompanied Duncan on his return to Scotland. Edersheim then studied Christian theology both in Edinburgh and also (under Hengstenberg, Neander, and others) in Berlin, and in 1846 he became a Presbyterian minister. Shortly afterwards he travelled abroad, and for a year he preached as a missionary both to ethnic Jews and to Germans living in Jassy in Romania. He also met there his first wife, Mary Broomfield, whom he married in 1848 after returning to Scotland.

Edersheim was particularly skilled in preaching; the incumbent at a large church in Aberdeen, he was soon appointed minister of the Free Church in Old Aberdeen, where he remained for twelve years. During this time he translated several philosophical and theological works from German to English, including Historical Development of Speculative Philosophy, from Kant to Hegel (1854), History of the Old Covenant (1859), History of the Christian Church (1860), and Theological and Homiletical Commentary on the Gospel of St Matthew (1861).


He also wrote History of the Jewish Nation from the Fall of Jerusalem to the Reign of Constantine the Great (1856), a copy of which is at Exeter College, and he contributed learned articles to the Athenaeum and other periodicals.

In the winter of 1860-61 poor health led Edersheim to move to Torquay, where his first wife died. He subsequently married Sophia, nee Hancock. Through his influence, the Presbyterian church of St Andrew was built at Torquay, and he became its first minister. In 1872 his failing health prompted him to retire from active work and to devote himself to writing. He therefore resigned his charge at Torquay and moved to Bournemouth. In 1874 he published The Temple: its Ministry and Services at the Time of Jesus Christ. Through his work he met and became friends with Dr George Williams, theologian, and thanks to his influence Edersheim took orders in the Church of England in 1875. From 1876 to 1882 he worked in the parish of Loders, near Bridport, in Dorset. Here he wrote his most important work, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (2 vols., 1883), arguably lacking in critical acumen but encyclopaedic in its range of information; he also used his personal knowledge of both Judaism and Christianity to write a fluent and engaging essay.

In 1880 Edersheim was appointed Warburtonian lecturer at Lincoln's Inn in London, an office which he held for four years. In 1882 he moved from Loders to Oxford where he had been granted an MA honoris causa the previous year. He had also been awarded honorary degrees from Kiel (PhD) and Vienna, Berlin, Giessen, and New College, Edinburgh (DD). In 1884-5 he was select preacher to the University of Oxford, and from 1886 to 1888 and 1888 to 1890 he was Grinfield lecturer on the Septuagint. In 1885 his Warburtonian lectures appeared, entitled Prophecy and History in Relation to the Messiah. Soon afterwards he wrote, with the co-operation of D. S. Margoliouth, a commentary on Ecclesiasticus for the Speaker's Commentary on the Apocrypha (1888). His next project was to be a work on The Life and Writings of St Paul; he had already written the opening chapters when he fell suddenly ill and died, on 16 March 1889, at Menton, France, where he had been spending the winter on account of his health.

Edersheim was remembered fondly for his tolerance and good humour, as well as for his skills as a preacher and writer. His daughter Ella wrote a short memoir of his life which was published as a foreword to Edersheim's Tohu-Va-Vohu ('Without form and void', 1890).


It is interesting to note that in the above biography written for the Oxford Dictionary of National biography there is no mention about his personal library and that it was donated to Exeter College. It certainly doesn’t mention the fact that since 1956 the bulk of his Hebraica collection, as opposed to his Christian scholarship, has been deposited at the Oriental Institute on Pusey Lane, Oxford.


From the above brief biography in the ODNB, however, it sheds some light on how it came to be that Rev. Alfred Edersheaim had such an important collection of Hebraica and how the collection ended up in the possession of an Oxford College.


It is evident from the above outline of his life that Edersheim studied in a Jewish school until he was 15, where he must have learnt traditional Jewish learning, including the Torah, Mishna, Midrash and Talmud, all which can be found in his library. He must have also been fluent in understanding and reading Biblical and rabbinical Hebrew.


After he finished his Jewish high-school, he seemed to have been led at the University of Vienna to make some fundamental changes in his life. At the young age of about 18 he had already converted to Christianity and at 21 he had become a Presbyterian minister.


Although we don’t know much about what caused his radical change in his religion, abandoning his community and probably his family, it does explain how he made his way to Oxford and had a rich dual collection of Christian works and traditional Hebraica.  


As he moved to Oxford at the age of 59 where he resided until he passed away we can understand why his collection ended up in an Oxford college, although his collection became dwarfed by the medieval collection of Hebraica found in the other colleges.


This is the part of a lengthy process in uncovering the rich Jewish history and heritage in this scholarly city, called by 19th century Rabbi Isaac Kook, the city of the books.


I became interested in this particular collection after being invited for a meeting by the current Rector of Exeter College. After the meeting we visited the safe room where the Edersheim collection is kept and came across the major Christian scholarly collection of his library. The books were full of dust and clearly have not been used in many years.


Interested in the Hebraica collection of the Edersheim collection, I made a visit to the Oriental Institute, enquiring at the library to view it. They did not know what I was referring to.


It took a series of phone calls and a second visit to locate the collection in a locked room in the basement. A remarkable collection of early printed works of the complete Talmud in German, histories of the Jews, also in German and many other classic Hebrew works of the Midrash, Mishnah, etc.


This led the OU Chabad Society to organise a formal exhibition of the Hebraica collection at Exeter College. It meanwhile became known that Exeter College have one of the most important early printed works of Hebraica, the earliest printed complete edition in Hebrew of the Torah, the Soncino Hebrew Bible printed in 1470.


The other works on display were Josephus ‘de bello Judaico’, Printed 1470; Hartmann J & F

Bible Hebrew, Frankfurt. 1595; The Daniel Bomberg Hebrew Bible, Venice, 1568; Samuel Bochart, 1599-1667, Epistola, Paris (1650); Johannes Buxtorf (1599-1664) Hebrew Bible 2 volumes, Basel 1620; ); Johannes Buxtorf Epitome grammaticae hebraeae, Amsterdam 1632; History of the Jewish nation after the destruction of Jerusalem under Titus by Alfred Edersheim,


Old Aberdeen 1896; The Proverbs of Solomon, translated from the Hebrew text with notes, critical and explanatory, by Abraham Elzas (1835-1880); Joshua Toulmin (1740-1815) Memoirs of the life, character, sentiments, and writings, of Faustus Socinus; Willem Surenhuys (1666-1729) Theologorum Hebræorum, Amsterdam (1713); Willem Surenhuys Mishnah, Amsterdam, 1698, 3 vols.; Flavius Josephus (1707) Hebrew text and Latin translation in parallel columns.


We are sure this will be the beginning of a process bringing to light the important hidden treasures of Hebraica deposited in Oxford, unknown to the outside world but waiting to be discovered and given their honourable position in the long history of this esteemed seat of learning and scholarship.


Comments on: The discovery of the Alfred Edersheim collection of Hebraica in Oxford

Avraham MALTHETE wrote...

The Bible printed in 4 volumes in Venice in 1568 has not been printed by Bomberg but Juan de Gara with the Bomberg letters. It is written at the end of the printer colophon, and you can verify it in Yeshayu Vinograd's Thesaurus of the Hebrew Book, vol. II, N° 559, 56o p. 254 and 561 p. 255.

Avraham MALTHETE, librarian at the Library of the Alliance Israelite Universelle, Paris, France.