A Hamburg Koran and the Downgrading of the Hebraic in the Christian Theology of the 17th Century

Achim Rohde

Source Description

This source deals with an excerpt from the foreword of the Hamburg edition of the Koran of 1694, published by Abraham Hinckelmann. Hinckelmann achieved his place in the history books because he published the first surviving printed Arabic edition of the Koran in Europe. This happened directly after the end of the second siege of Vienna by the Ottoman Turks (1683) and the Habsburg counter-offensive (1686), one result of which was that valuable Ottoman manuscripts reached Europe as war booty – an important impulse that favored the development of Oriental Studies in German-speaking lands. Hinckelmann’s edition of the Koran was a milestone in this respect. In an 80-page foreword Hinckelmann justifies not only his publishing of the Koran in its original language – a much contested initiative at the time – but also offeres a detailed description of “Arabic Studies,” based on his own extensive knowledge, that would be valuable from a scholarly and historical perspective. At the same time, he disputed what in the late 17th century was still the largely unchallenged special status of Hebrew as the lingua sacra, designating instead Arabic as the next closest to the divine language and therefore also relevant for the understanding of the Bible.

This emerging desacralization and symbolic downgrading of the Hebrew language signaled the approaching end of preoccupation with the Jewish theology or the Talmud as well as the decreasing interest in personal exchanges with Jewish scholars (even though for missionary purposes) on the part of “enlightened” Christian-influenced Hebraists of the 18th and 19th centuries.

  • Achim Rohde

The Orient in European Cultures of Knowledge in the Middle Ages and in the Early Modern Era

The present source illustrates the changing self-image of Christian Europe, with regard to significant Others, above all Muslims and Jews. At the same time, the author adjusts the relationship of these two with one another – in this case with regard to the Hebrew and Arabic languages.

Cultural contacts between Europe and “the Orient” were characterized since the rise of Islam and the establishment of Muslim realms on the Arab Peninsula and in the Mediterranean region by theological and political competition, which often took on warlike traits, first in the context of the Crusades, then in the wake of the so-called Reconquista and wars against the Ottoman Empire. The first Latin translation of the Koran dates from the 12th century and came from the pen of Robert of Ketton, an English astronomer, translator, priest and diplomat in 1143. He was convinced of the necessity that the battle against the Muslims be carried on, not only with weapons, but also in the form of theological disputation with Islam. In the 14th century, it was resolved at the Council of Vienna (1311) that several European universities would institute the study of Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic (which was known as Chaldean at that time). In post-Reformation Europe, especially in the 17th century, numerous professorships were dedicated to the research of Hebrew and other “languages of the Orient.”

The background for this development was the shortage of appropriately qualified forces for missionary activity among Jews and Muslims, but also the need for those with the relevant language skills for political negotiations with Muslim rulers. However, above all, the connection between the study of Oriental languages as part of biblical studies and church history is to be taken into consideration; this meant first and foremost the study of Hebraic languages. The purpose of this pursuit rested on the fact that the meaning of certain biblical texts was to be elucidated by the comparison of Hebrew with other related languages. The focus was on Hebrew and Aramaic. Arabic Studies was, because of its relationship to the Arabic and Hebrew languages, an appendage of biblical scholarship.

The German lands were for a long time of lesser importance in the European development of Oriental and Hebraic studies. In greater measure, these began to secure a footing in the wake of the Reformation when the study of holy scriptures in their original language assumed high importance. This development was also reflected in the Hamburg Academic High School Hamburger Akademisches Gymnasium (founded 1613), a dedicated Protestant educational institution, in which Christian Hebraism and Orientalism were present from its beginning until its closure. In the 17th century and into the early 18th century, substantial “Orientalist scholarly” activities were recorded in Hamburg which in great part, although not completely, came out of the Academic High School Akademisches Gymansium) and commanded supra-regional attention. Hinckelmann’s 1694 edition of the Koran should be placed in this context.

The Hamburg Koran and the Significance of the Arabic Language

That Hinckelmann presents himself in his foreword as a decided adversary of Islam seems to have been his way of getting around the criticism of his contemporaries. He likewise argues that one must know the Koran thoroughly in order to effectively fight it. Hinckelmann was a Christian theologian and biblical scholar and as such obliged to hold the received conception of Hebrew as the mother of all languages. He grew up the son of a minister in Hamburg and as a result of his studies of theology and Oriental languages worked as a teacher and school director; later he was the chief pastor of St. Catherine’s. Before his edition of the Koran, he wrote about various passages in the Torah. What, therefore, triggered his passion for a Koran printed in Arabic and for “Arabic Studies” in general? (In his private library there were Arabic manuscripts of inestimable value.) Hinckelmann himself answers this question in the foreword of his edition of the Koran: “However, you certainly will not so easily find other languages which pour forth into the divine and the human sciences as does Arabic: far be it from us that we should neglect it! So far as theology is concerned, it is unbelievable what great light is shed upon the Hebrew Language … and sacred scriptures.”

Hinckelmann further maintained that no one could correctly understand an Oriental language if he did not learn all the others, that is, next to Hebrew, “Chaldean, Samaritan, Syrian, Arabic, and Ethiopian.” For, ultimately, they were all dialects of one and the same language, the divine original language from the era before the Babylonian confusion of languages. Hinckelmann thereby invoked the work of the Berlin Orientalist Christian Ravius, whose works were generally skeptically received by contemporaries, and who was the first to advance the so-called dialect thesis. Especially interesting was Hinckelmann’s assertion that Arabic was of decisive importance for the interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, particularly for its older books, for example, the Book of Job.

Contained in this assertion is the conception of a uniquely authentic Arabic language which had scarcely changed over the millennia and therefore was closest to the divine original language.

His special valuation of Arabic points to the fact that, for Hinckelmann, the heretofore uncontested divine special status of Hebrew was already in doubt. While the preoccupation of Christian theologians with post-biblical Hebrew had already sounded a critical dispute with rabbinic scholarship, Hinckelmann went a step further: although not explicitly stated in his foreword, his argument implies that biblical Hebrew did not represent the divine language in its pure form, but rather that it had altered over the course of time. Therefore, the true semantic content of the Bible could be construed only with recourse to a variety of related languages. By referring to the relationship of Hebrew and Arabic and by his positive reception of the thesis of a special authenticity for Arabic and its resultant nearness to the divine original language, Hinckelmann turned on its head the prevailing relationship of the two languages postulated by biblical research: “‛They are neither all alike, nor all different, just as sisters should be.’ [Ovid, Metamorphoses, 2, 13-14, Translated by A. S. Kline, Luxembourg 2000]. In this matter, as I have already said, the Arabic language can lay claim to a certain preeminence for itself, because with regard to antiquity and greatness it vanquished its sisters, and even the power it received from its Hebrew mother has been recompensed by the right of return.” Hinckelmann’s theses are representative of a process that can be designated as the “Orientalization” of Judaism as well as Christianity under way since the middle of the 17th century, that is, “a hermeneutic access principally to the Old Testament, which no longer detached itself from all historical-cultural contexts or seeing itself as a development in an isolated sacred historical sphere.” The Orient was now conceived of “as the everyday context of creation” for the biblical scriptures. Consequently, his research became increasingly relevant for the study of the Bible and in the future developed into an independent academic discipline.


In Hinckelmann’s foreword, therefore, a development is manifest, in which the foundations for the comparative Semitic philology of the 19th and 20th centuries are established. Hinckelmann’s positively interpreted motif of a seemingly unspoiled Arabic language (resting on its stasis) found, in the 19th and 20th centuries, its negatively interpreted reflection in the conception of a culturally stagnant Orient, whose connection to modernity had been missed. The classification of the Hebraic language – and thereby Judaism as well – in an Oriental context created the presuppositions for a pejorative Orientalization of Judaism as a deficient “Mediterranean” Other compared to Christian Europe, that is, for modern antisemitism.

Select Bibliography

Der Hamburger Koran von 1694, in: Christian Voigt / Erich Zimmermann (eds.), Libris et Litteris. Festschrift für Hermann Tiemann, Hamburg 1959, pp. 149-166.
Johann Fück, Die arabischen Studien in Europa bis in den Anfang des 20. Jahrhunderts, Leipzig 1955.
Jan Loop, Kontroverse Bemühungen um den Orient. Johann Jacob Reiske und die deutsche Orientalistik seiner Zeit, in: Hans-Georg Ebert / Thoralf Hanstein (eds.), Johann Jacob Reiske – Leben und Wirkung. Ein Leipziger Byzantinist und Begründer der Orientalistik im 18. Jahrhundert, Leipzig 2005, pp. 45-85.
Achim Rohde, 400 Jahre Orientalistik / Hebraistik in Hamburg: Vom Akademischen Gymnasium zur Hamburgischen Universität, in: Dirk Brietzke / Franklin Kopitzsch / Rainer Nicolaysen (eds.), Das Akademische Gymnasium. Bildung und Wissenschaft in Hamburg 1613 bis 1883, Hamburger Beiträge zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte vol. 23, Berlin et al. 2013, pp. 195-212.
Achim Rohde, Der innere Orient. Orientalismus, Antisemitismus und Geschlecht im Deutschland des 18. bis 20. Jahrhunderts, in: Die Welt des Islams 45 (2005) 3, pp. 370-411.

Selected English Titles

Lothar Gall / Dietmar Willoweit (eds.), Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in the Course of History. Exchange and Conflicts, München 2011.
A. L. Macfie, Orientalism. A Reader, New York 2000.

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About the Author

Achim Rohde, Dr. phil., born 1969, is scientific coordinator at the Academy for Islam in Science and Society at the Goethe-University Frankfurt. His focus of research: modern and contemporary history of the Near and Middle East, history of Orientalism in Germany.

Recommended Citation and License Statement

Achim Rohde, A Hamburg Koran and the Downgrading of the Hebraic in the Christian Theology of the 17th Century (translated by Richard S. Levy), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, October 21, 2018. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-51.en.v1> [May 20, 2024].

This text is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Non commercial - No Derivatives 4.0 International License. As long as the work is unedited and you give appropriate credit according to the Recommended Citation, you may reuse and redistribute the material in any medium or format for non-commercial purposes.