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The Perils of Translating a Bible

A prominent Churchman, Don Luis de Guzmán, commands the renowned scholar Rabbi Moses Arragel de Guadalajara to undertake a task of major significance: he is to translate the Hebrew Bible into Castilian and compile an extensive commentary, to be accompanied by a wealth of illustrations and illuminations in a monumental manuscript.

The rabbi, loyal to his ancestors and his people, was most reluctant to agree to prepare a text which he felt might conflict with Christian doctrine and thus expose Spanish Jewry to attack. Pressure exerted by the ecclesiastical authorities eventually forced him to relent.

The attack of the Inquisition

The manuscript known today as the Alba Bible was completed in 1430. It might well have become a symbol of hope for those Jews and Christians who, prior to the tragic end of the Jewish presence in medieval Spain, sought to improve Jewish-Christian relations. Instead, their attempts failed, and the hostility fanned by the Inquisition culminated in the Expulsion of 1492.

The Highest Purpose of the Bible

From now on the manuscript, at that time abandoned and probably even left unbound, will be able to play the role intended for it. The Alba Bible is not merely a superb example of Spanish manuscript illumination. It is all that remains of one of the last attempts by intellectual Jews and Christians to heal the rifts that finally led to the calamity of expulsion.

The first twenty-five folios of the Alba Bible contain transcriptions of the detailed exchanges between Don Luis and Rabbi Moses, documenting their negotiations up to the moment when the Rabbi finally agreed to take on the task, perhaps against his better judgement. A full-page miniature depicting its completion shows Don Luis de Guzmán enthroned like King Solomon, with the Rabbi on his knees before him handing over the codex. Two monks, a Franciscan and a Dominican, were assigned to help the Rabbi in his work, doubtless in a supervisory role. A number of Christian artists were employed to illustrate the text. What emerged is no less than a masterpiece.

The Importance of the Commentary

Known as the Alba Bible, after its eventual owner, it is the most important manuscript to have survived from the reign of King John II.

The Alba Bible, with its 513 folios and 334 miniatures, is a powerful work of visual art. But still more significant is the vast commentary it contains.

Rabbi Moses showed great independence and courage, and his translation and commentary make few concessions to Christian thinking, although he must have been aware of the dangers awaiting both him and the Jewish community. It is rich in extracts not only from rabbinical writings such as the Targumim, Midrashim and Talmud, but also from later works such as the Zohar – the source book of Jewish mysticism.

Rabbi Moses may well have given the artists detailed instructions on the illustrations, furnishing them with specifically Jewish interpretations of biblical scenes. The resulting images are also very important as cultural records, since contemporary weapons, musical instruments, furniture and costumes are all depicted. The cooperation between the Christian patron and the Jewish author-translator makes the Alba Bible a vital element in the ancient and troubled Christian-Hebraic tradition.

We have 1 facsimile edition of the manuscript "Alba Bible": The Alba Bible facsimile edition, published by Facsimile Editions Ltd., 1992

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The Alba Bible

London: Facsimile Editions Ltd., 1992

  • Commentary (English) by Schonfield, J.; Ben-Ami, S.; Fellous-Rozenblat, S.; Keller, A.; Lazar, M.; McKay, A.
  • Limited Edition: 500 copies
  • Full-size color reproduction of the entire original document, Alba Bible: the facsimile attempts to replicate the look-and-feel and physical features of the original document; pages are trimmed according to the original format; the binding might not be consistent with the current document binding.

The paper used for this facsimile edition, formulated to reproduce the exact feel and opacity of the original parchment, was milled in Italy. The elegant and richly illustrated commentary volume designed by eminent typographer Gerald Cinamon (with assistance from Anthony Kitzinger), with chapter openings designed and hand drawn by master calligrapher Satwinder Sehmi, sets the manuscript in its historical background.

Binding

The original binding of the manuscript no longer exists, so a blind-tooled Mudéjar binding, now in Toledo Cathedral and produced in the same time and geographical area as the manuscript, was used as a model for both the facsimile and for a new binding of the original manuscript. Morocco goatskins. Binder Angelo Recalcati.

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approx US$ 49,950


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