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A Jewish Reading of Milton

Powerful Essays
A Jewish Reading of Milton

John Milton produced some of the most memorable Christian texts in English literature. Central pieces of Milton’s work, including Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes, specifically allude to stories that Judaism and Christianity hold in common. Historically, the anti-monarchical regime Milton supported, under the leadership of Cromwell, informally allowed Jews back into England in 1655 after Edward I exiled them in 1290 (Trepp 151). Additionally, seventeenth-century British Christians looked increasingly to Jewish texts to understand their own religion (e.g. Robert Ainsworth and John Seldon), with Hebraic studies from German scholarship and Latin translations of Jewish texts entering during the interregnum (Biberman 141-42; Werman 25). Thus, critics have wondered how much of an appreciation (or lack thereof) Milton had for Jewish tradition, and how his famous texts speak to Jewish readers. This readership refers not merely to religiously or ethnically Jewish readers but to a literary approach; just as a critic may apply a feminist or Marxist approach, one may also apply questions about treatment or marginalization of Jews, or related attitudes in a text (without being Jewish, feminist, Marxist, etc.). A Jewish reading of Milton reveals that although he held intolerant views toward Jews, his explicit citations and implicit agreements with Jewish Scriptural interpretation, as well as stylistic relations to Jewish commentary, demonstrate appreciable esteem for Hebraic thought.

Critics have typically focused on the debate over the extent of Milton’s access to primary sources or whether he used translations and secondary information from Christian Hebraists. Adams, Conklin, Mendelsohn, a...

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...nd Law in Paradise Lost. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1994.

Steinsaltz, Adin. The Essential Talmud. Trans. Chaya Galai. New York: Basic, 1976.

Trepp, Leo. A History of the Jewish Experience. Springfield, NJ: Behrman, 2001.

Weiss-Rosmarin, Trude. Judaism and Christianity. Middle Village, NY: Jonathan David, 1997.

Werman, Golda. Milton and Midrash. Washington, DC: Catholic U of America P, 1995.

Notes

1 Despite the temptation, Flannagan wisely avoids a strong philo-Hebraic reading here, interpreting the praise of “proto-Christian” art merely as an example of religious superiority over the Greeks and not artistic superiority (footnote 103). Milton continuously uses Greek styles in his work, even citing Aristotle as his guide in writing Samson Agonistes (see “Of that sort of Dramatic Poem which is call’d Tragedy,” a preface to Samson Agonistes, 799-800).
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