30 July 2013

Accidental Discoveries: The Mystery of the Alba Bible

By Kathryn A. Kopple

In 1492, Isabel I and Fernando II of Castile and Aragón signed the “Alhambra Decree,” the edict that ordered the expulsion of the Jews from Spain.  Five hundred years later, King Juan Carlos of Spain would nullify the order.  His retraction of the decree was accompanied by the unveiling of a facsimile of an illuminated manuscript of the Pentateuch (the Christian term for “Torah”) that has come to be known as the Alba Bible.   As a gesture of reconciliation for the suffering inflicted upon the Jews by their Majesties Isabel and Fernando, in accordance with the wishes of the Holy Office (commonly known as the Inquisition), the commissioning of such a project represented an act of religious and historical significance.  The Sephardic Jews were no longer stigmatized; their long contribution to Iberian culture as a people of learning and piety (not to mention the arts and sciences) honored by the restoration of a sacred artifact of importance to world culture.

The Alba Bible is lauded as one of the earliest translations of the Torah into a romance language—or, as the case may be, Castilian.  It would be more accurate to say that the Alba Bible is one of the oldest translations from Hebrew into a romance language to have survived to present day.  Sergio Fernández López writes that, during the Middle Ages, Spanish Jews undertook numerous “traducciones romances” (romance translations) of the Scripture.  The majority of these labors would be destroyed by the Inquisition.  One version, however, did manage to surive : “manuscrito 399 de la biblioteca del Palacio de Liria” (manuscript 399 in the library of the Liria Palace).   Fernández López goes on to say that manuscript 399 has received the greatest attention due the quality of the work, as well as the accompanying rabbinical commentary.

The Alba Bible dates back to the early 15th century.  Luis de Guzmán, master of the Order of Calatrava, wished to have a version of the Old Testament translated directly from Hebrew into Castilian.  He sought out the services of Rabbi Moses Arragel of Guadalajara. Correspondence between the nobleman and the rabbi conveys the difficulties the project represented for Arragel.  Unlike Latin or Greek, a translation from Hebrew would certainly earn the rabbi unwelcome attention by the censors of the Holy Office; nor could he be assured that even one as powerful as Guzmán could keep him safe.  Nonetheless, Guzman persisted.  In a letter cited by Fernández López, we read that Guzmán  persuades Moses Arrangel to do as he asks because the romance bibles in circulation are unreliable translations.  Also, they lack the rabbinical commentary—without which much of the Torah remained obscure—and even threatening—to those of the Christian faith.  After expressing his reluctance—making explicit reference to his Sephardic-Hebrew origins and his concern that a translation of the Scripture would only bring more hardship upon his people—the rabbi acquiesced.  He agreed to take charge of the translation and commentary while two cousins of Guzmán oversaw the illuminations.  Begun in 1422, the Alba Bible would not be finished until 1433.  According to Fernández López, Arragel sent his translation from the villa de Maqueda in 1430 to Toledo, where the illuminations and final corrections were to be made.  It would take another three years to complete the project.  And yet, after 1433, the translation that has come to be known as the Alba Bible vanished, along with its translator.

Historians confirm that the rabbi finished the manuscript on Friday 2 June 1430 in Maqueda.  There seems to be some confusion as to whether he was paid for his work.  As for his disappearance, by the end of the 15th century, many of the Jews of Maqueda had converted to Christianity.   Arragel’s name, however, does appear in the registry. Were it not for the Alba Bible, Rabbi Moses Arragel would have passed into obscurity.  His disappearance makes even more urgent the question:  what happened to the Alba Bible?

The Alba Bible went missing for two hundred years, only to resurface in the 17th century.  Very few versions of the Torah translated from Hebrew into Castilian seem to have sparked such interest. In addition to Arragel’s meticulous commentary, the rabbi had included a fifty page preface (known as the “memorandum”) and a “glossary for the perplexed.”  The commentary alone would have raised the suspicions of the Inquisition.  The Jews of Spain, we must remember, were expelled for Judaizing (among other alleged wrong-doings)—or preaching the Jewish religion to Christians, in particular to Jewish converts to the Catholic faith.  Any specifically Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament could be seen as a tool for persuading those who had abandoned the “old religion” to return to the fold. 

As with any mystery—in this case the disappearance of the Alba Bible—theories abound.  Fernández López states that in 1624 the Grand Inquisitor don Andrés de Pacheco gave the bible to the Count-Duke Olivares in return for “favors,” most likely donations of one sort or another.  After which, the bible made its way to the House of Alba.  

Did the Inquisition have the bible in its possession for more than two centuries?  17th century documents referring to a romance bible seem to validate this theory.  Investigations were launched.  Jerónimo de Courbes was the first to be interrogated.  Courbes then named Hernando de Salazar, saying that, quite unintentionally, he had seen a “biblia romance” (romance bible) on his lectern.  Salazar was subsequently interrogated; he confessed that he had not studied the bible in great detail but gave it to a friar of the Carmelite order, who had a license to read banned texts.  He adds that, nearly a year later, the friar returned the bible to him.  After that, the House of Olivares came into possession of the bible. 

Book burning was a specialty of the Inquisition, which operated in a number of European countries.  They were dramatic events in which banned books were torched as onlookers watched in public squares.  The faithful were reminded of the flames of hell; a fate that no doubt awaited the authors’ of such works, and treated to sermons railing against heresy.   The Burning of the Books or St. Dominic de Guzman and the Albigensians, a painting by Pedro Berruqete (1450-1504), depicts one such scene to great effect.  The Inquisition was nothing if not zealous when it came to books.  Was the Alba Bible seen as an exception in the minds of the Inquisitors?  Certainly, it was in the interest of those who were detained by the Holy Office to provide assurances that the Alba Bible contained nothing that would denigrate the Catholic faith.  Indeed, the bible would not exist were it not for don Luis de Guzmán, the head of one of Spain’s most powerful military-religious orders.  Was this reason enough to prevent the Inquisition from burning it? 

Fernández López thinks not. Surprising as it sounds, in an era in which the Inquisition couldn’t have been more active—the 15th century--Renaissance humanism also flourished in Spain.  Humanist scholars would have recognized the value of Arragel’s bible for all the reasons cited above.  Could copies of the bible been made, and if so, by whom?  Fernández López  suggests that at the very least two copies existed: one which would eventually be confiscated by the Inquisition and another—the actual Alba Bible—which was safeguarded by a Spanish nobleman, who passed it on to his heirs.  If what he asserts is true, we have the humanists to thank for the conservation of one of the world’s most exquisite romance bibles.


See Facsimile Editions, The Alba Bible, http://www.facsimile-editions.com/en/ab/ (last consulted 7/27/2013.



Kathryn A.Kopple is the author of Little Velásquez, a novel set in 15th century Spain.