Mithridates, Flavius

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MITHRIDATES, FLAVIUS , sobriquet of a 15th-century humanist and Orientalist (apparently Samuel b. Nissim Bulfarag) of Caltabellotta, Sicily. He became converted to Christianity around 1466, taking the name Guglielmo Raimondo de Moncada, probably conferred by Guglielmo Raimondo Moncada Esfanoller, count of Adernò, who may have acted as godfather at his baptism. He is also referred to as Guglielmus Siculus ("the Sicilian"). After his conversion, he studied at the University of Catania where he learned Latin. He later stayed for a time in Messina. In 1470 he left Sicily to study at the University of Naples. He had the financial support of several Sicilian cities and several private persons who financed his studies, which shows that he must have enjoyed the patronage of influential figures in Sicily. Between 1476 and 1478, he acquired ecclesiastical benefices in several Sicilian cities. In 1477 he was accused of heresy but he was able to refute the accusations. Notarial acts preserved in Sicily in the archives of Sciacca and Caltabellotta show that he maintained his connections with the Jews of Caltabellotta but Mithridates' attitudes toward his former coreligionists were for the most part antagonistic. While at the court of King John ii of Aragon, around 1474, he took part in religious disputations with Jews and was praised for converting some of them to Christianity. Later in his life he disputed with Jewish scholars in Florence. In 1474 he appealed to Pope Sixtus iv to be granted the legacy left by the Jew Salomone Anello of Agrigento for the foundation and maintenance of a Jewish school confiscated and used to further the Christian faith rather than Judaism. The heirs of Anello contested the decision to close the school, and the litigation continued for several years, until a kind of compromise was reached and the Jews of Agrigento were ordered to provide Moncada/Mithridates with a house in Palermo instead of the school building in their city. Around 1478 he moved to Rome and came under the patronage of Giovanni Battista Cibo, bishop of Molfetta, later Pope Innocent viii, and became a lecturer in theology at the Sapienza in Rome. In 1481, on Good Friday, he preached a sermon before Pope Sixtus iv and the College of Cardinals on the sufferings of Jesus (Sermo de Passione Domini, ed. by H. Wirszubski, 1963), offering Christological interpretations of Jewish texts. Wirszubski demonstrated that in his sermon he relied extensively on the Pugio Fidei ("Dagger of Faith"), the polemical work of the Dominican Raymundus Martini, without, however, giving credit to his source. Toward the end of his discourse, Mithridates quoted so-called secret Jewish doctrines, some of them outright forgeries, fabricated from rephrasings of rabbinical sayings. In 1483 Mithridates was accused of committing a serious offense (unspecified) and as a consequence was deprived of all benefices and forced to flee Rome. The offense could have been of a sexual nature, as in his writings Mithridates is very explicit about his homosexuality, including his relationship with a young boy, Lancilotto de Faenza.

Mithridates taught Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic in Italy, France, and Germany and was one of the teachers of the humanist, Giovanni *Pico della Mirandola. He translated works from Arabic, Hebrew, and Greek into Latin, including parts of the Koran for Federigo da Montefeltro, duke of Urbino, intending also to translate it into Hebrew and Syriac. For Pico he translated Menahem *Recanati's commentary on the Torah, *Levi b. Gershom's commentary on the Song of Songs, a treatise on resurrection by Maimonides, and a number of kabbalistic works, among them Sitrei Torah and Sefer Ge'ulah (translated into Latin as Liber Redemptionis) both by Abraham Abulafia, Nefesh ha-Hakamah by Moses de Leon and Ha-Yeri'ah ha-Gedolah, a 14th-century kabbalistic text by an unknown author. According to Giulio Busi in The Great Parchment, Mithridates proved to be a skilled translator, able to grasp the subtlest nuances of mystical speculations. The translations also serve as a valuable historical source as Mithridates often added his personal remarks that allude to contemporary events and figures, mostly regarding Pico himself and Mithridates' former patron, Giovanni Battista Cibo (by then Pope Innocent viii), and the late Pope Sixtus iv. The translations also provide some biographical notes on the personality of their author such as his Hebrew name (Samuel), his homosexuality, and his personal relationship with Pico.

Mithridates' influence and his contribution to Renaissance culture went well beyond that of a skilled translator. Pico used some of his translations for writing his 900 Theses, which had a wide impact on Renaissance thought. He also had a crucial role in the spread of Christian Kabbalah.


Starrabba, in: Archivio Storico Siciliano, 2 (1878), 15–19; Secret, in: rej, 106 (1957), 96–102; idem, Les Kabbalistes Chrétiens de la Renaissance (1964), index; Wirszubski, in: Sefer Yovel. Y. Baer (1960), 191–206; Cassuto, in: zgjd, 5 (1934), 230–6; Baron, Social2, 13 (1969), 174–5, 401–2. add. bibliography: Ch. Wirszubski, Sermo de Passione Domini (1963); idem, Pico della Mirandola's Encounter with Jewish Mysticism (1989); idem, "Liber Redemptionis. An Early Version of Rabbi Abraham Abulafia's Kabbalistic Commentary on the Guide to the Perplexed," in: Proceedings of the Israel Academy of Sciences, 3:8 (1969), 135–49; S. Simonsohn, "Some Well-known Jewish Converts during the Renaissance," in: rej, 148 (1989), 17–52; idem, "Giovanni Pico della Mirandola on Jews and Judaism," in: J. Cohen (ed.), From Witness to Witchraft: Jews and Judaism in Medieval Christian Thought (1996), 402–17; S. Campanini, "Pici Mirandulensis bibliotheca cabbalistica Latina," in: Materia Judaica, 7:1 (2002), 90–95; The Great Parchment: Flavius Mithridates' Latin Translation, the Hebrew Text, and an English Version, eds. G. Busi et al. (2004); S. Simonsohn, The Jews in Sicily, 6 (2004), index; A. Scandaliato, "Le radici familiari e culturali di Guglielmo Raimondo Moncada. Ebreo convertito del rinascimento nell'isola dello specchio'," in: Una manna buona per Mantova. Studi in onore di Vittorio Colorni (2004), 203–40.

[Menachem E. Artom /

Nadia Zeldes (2nd ed.)]