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Selden, John°


SELDEN, JOHN ° (1584–1654), English parliamentarian, lawyer, and antiquarian. Selden was a prominent member of the Antiquarian Society – the important forum for research in the 17th century. He had an exceptional command of Oriental languages, notably of both biblical and rabbinical Hebrew.

His attitude toward Jews and Judaism was marked by contradictions. Thus, in his short Treatise on the Jews in England (1617), he gives credence to ritual murder, albeit as past history. On the other hand, in all his works on Jewish subjects he expresses boundless admiration for rabbinical scholarship, which sometimes borders on the grotesque (cf. Ehrman, in: Papers from the Fourth World Congress of Jewish Studies 1 (1967), 181–3 (Heb.), 267 (Eng. abstract)). In his famous Table Talk he also writes sympathetically about Jews. Selden's amazing familiarity with the intrinsic problems of rabbinical scholarship and his erudite exposition of rabbinical law, which runs into many volumes, form a unique contribution to scholarship. A list of the short titles of his rabbinical writings indicates the extensiveness of his work in this field: History of Tithes (1617), leading up to questions on the relations between church and state; De Jure Naturali et Gentium (1640), on international law (a work to which particular attention is drawn by Shabtai Rosenne in "The Influence of Judaism on the Development of International Law," Netherlands International Law Review, 5 (1958), 128–30); De Anno Civili (1644), a work which first refers to the doctrines and practices of the Karaites; Uxor Ebraica (1946), on Jewish marriage and divorce laws; De Synhedriis (1650), on the constitution of Jewish ecclesiastical courts, drawing attention to relevant parallels with the constitution of the Church as regards the division of authority between clergy and laymen; De Successionibus (1631), on Jewish laws of inheritance. In fact all his works, and not just his specific rabbinical writings, make frequent reference to rabbinical sources.

It was probably to explain or justify and also occasionally to protest against specific Christian institutions that Selden had recourse to rabbinical sources. Thus, for instance, when he was writing his Uxor Ebraica, his friends assumed that his aim was to throw further light on a topic of Christian interest. R. Cudworth wrote to him from Cambridge (Mss. Seld. 108, Arch. Seld. A, Bodleian Library, Oxford): "I hope in your Worke de Nuptys Hebrays you will bring something to light which the world is yet ignorant of, for the clearing of our Saviour's descent from David's line"; Cudworth then goes on in a scholarly fashion to point to an apparent contradiction between Abrabanel's commentary on Isaiah and an instance in the Talmud, touching as it were on the Christian viewpoint under discussion. As to Selden's treatment of the sources of Jewish law, it is certain that he did not rely merely on secondary sources (e.g., the works of Johannes *Buxtorf, I and II) but read the Talmud (both the Babylonian and the Jerusalem) at least to the extent of looking up references suggested to him in Jewish and non-Jewish post-talmudic works. His library was apparently crowded with different editions of the Talmud as well as the most varied works of the post-talmudic rabbinical literature (Selden Handlist, Libri Bibl. Seld., Bodleian Library, Oxford). It is evident, however, that his main source was Maimonides' Code, which he preferred to the standard codes ofArba'ah Turim and Shulḥan Arukh. Whatever the shortcomings of Selden's rabbinical writings may have been, the inaccuracies, obscurities, and digressions which were severely exposed by Herzog (in: Journal of Comparative Legislation, 13 (1931), 236–45), it is clear that by stimulating interest in rabbinics he greatly contributed to Christian scholarship as well as to modern Judaic studies.


Margoliuth, in: Macray's Annals; Ehrman, in: Christian News from Israel, 13 no. 1 (1962), 22–25. add. bibliography: odnb online.

[Arnost Zvi Ehrman]

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